In America, going to prestigious Andover Academy and then Yale, for example, can boost your career prospects without a doubt; but going to Average Joe High School and then some random state college will not prevent you for being successful, as long as you're smart and hard working. The Japanese, on the other hand, don't put much trust in the meritocracy; it's all about the brand in Japanese culture.
February is the month of school entrance exams in Japan and Japanese mothers are doing their best to completely flip out and make sure everyone is appropriately stressed out. Japan Today quoted a Japanese mother who said:
“I have told my child not to attend PE class since January. I can’t believe the school lets kids wear T-shirts and shorts for PE in winter. My child has been studying at prep school six days a week and for 10 hours a day in weekend. I don’t want him to catch a cold on the day of the exam.”Kids wearing shorts during PE class? What outrage!!...But seriously when you believe that the brand - i.e. the school - is all that matters, then you'll get a little crazy about that sort of thing.
The pressure that's put on Japanese children must also be understood in the light of Japan's declining birth rate. Most Japanese families have one, or two kids at the most. So all the pressure to succeed is draped on one child in Japanese culture. This is also seen in China as a consequence of the shameful "one child policy" of the Chinese communist government.
This concern of form over matter reaches its apotheosis with Japanese universities, which are amazingly hard to get into (another killer Japanese school exam), but almost impossible to fail out of, because they expect nothing from university students (the thinking has been, "Why not relax in college? You'll soon become a salaryman and have to work 90 hours a week for the rest of your life").
The Japanese mother, in the above quote, mentioned "prep school" which is also known as a juku school, which can be translated as "cram school." While the public schools at least pretend to educate children, the cram schools get right to the heart of the matter; they understand that in Japanese culture the school test is everything.
Nobuyasu Morigami from the Japanese Morigami Education Institute, had some kind words for the parents and children who fail the Japanese school exams, but you'd have to think this is not how Japanese families take the news:
“Even if their children fail the exams, parents should not show their disappointment. What is important is to encourage children to go on to any school positively by telling them they can change their lives by themselves, even though they might not be able to go to their first choice school. Failing an exam is not the end of their lives.”One of the sad effects of this testing pressure is Japanese teenage suicides, which Mr. Morigami may be alluding to in his comment. In my humble opinion, the absence of any kind of faith or religious conviction in Japan (particularly the personal God of the Christian Jewish tradition) is a big factor in the despair and disappointment of Japanese youth.
Mr. Morigami says, "They can change their lives by themselves." In the absence of a "higher power" for the Japanese, so much of the burden of life falls squarely on the Japanese people to solve things "by themselves." During the 20th century we saw what happens when nations eschew faith and rely dogmatically on atheistic forms of philosophy that see "the self" as the only resource one can count on.