A Japanese Cram School

With a focus on passing the entry test into prestigious schools, a private ‘Cram School’ uses a mimetic approach:

Tests are a central part of the Japanese education system. Those with the best results get into the most prestigious elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities, and this in turn determines whether you get a job in the most prestigious organisations. Juku, or private cramming schools, exist to help young Japanese get through the tests. Classes can last for up to four or five hours after school, and some students may not get home until as late as 9pm or 10pm at night. Lois Peak describes a Tokyo cram school helping very young children pass the entry test for the best elementary schools.

The Yamamoto Development Center occupies one floor of a building in a centrally located upper-middle-class neighborhood of Tokyo. The classrooms are comfortable and nicely appointed with child-sized chairs and tables. The mothers and children are fashionably dressed. Like the teachers, the mothers speak refined, upper-middle-class language. All children are five-year-olds in their last year of preschool.

Children come to the center once a week, for an hour-long lesson. Most enroll six to eight months before entrance examinations are held. The one-time application fee upon entering the program is 80,000 yen ($US530,000) and tuition for four hour-long lessons per month is usually 20,000 yen ($US133,000). Such high tuition is typical of examination preparation centers, which are notoriously one of the most expensive types of enrichment lessons in Japan.

Most families choose an examination preparation center that is designed to help children prepare for the examination to a particular elementary school. This both ensures that the child’s training is appropriate to the content of the examination and that the parents can benefit maximally from the director’s advice on admission strategies.

Lesson activities at Yamamoto focus on providing children experience in several key skills that are important in entrance examinations. Training typically attempts to develop a cheerful, confident self-presentation, care and precision in following directions, familiarity with typical test items, and experience with the testing routine. Some classes also have children construct things using scissors and paste or practice motor skills that are required on some entrance examinations …

In a typical lesson at Yamamoto Development Center, children are seated at their desks and mothers sit in a line of chairs at the back of the room. The teacher begins the lesson by having each child rise to attention, announce his or her name loudly and clearly, and then sit down again …

The main part of the lesson involves practicing sample test questions from mimeographed work sheets. Children are given experience not only in understanding format of typical questions, but also in how to listen carefully and follow directions accurately. An excerpt from class observation notes at Yamamoto gives a flavor of how these lessons are presented:

The teacher passes out mimeographed papers with three letters written at the top of the page, and fifteen pictures beginning with those sounds in random order beneath them. Bringing the children to seated attention and telling them to listen carefully, she gives directions only once. Speaking slowly and clearly she tells them,

‘Circle the “su” with green. Circle the “se” with red. Circle the “so” with orange. Now you may color.’

At this signal children pick up their crayons and circle the letters quickly with the appropriate color. After finishing, they line their crayons up again carefully.

‘Now look at the picture underneath. Draw a green circle around the things that start with “su” … Draw a red circle around the things that start with “se.” and an orange circle around the things that start with “so.” Now you may start.”

The teacher moves around the room correcting children who make mistakes.

Following this exercise, the teacher passes out another mimeographed page with a series of domino-like figures on it … Again, calling the children to seated attention she gives instructions only once.

‘Count the number of dots in each box. Draw one more than that number of circles in the small spaces below. Begin.’

She again moves about the room giving suggestions to children who make mistakes.

‘Use your finger when you count. How many dots are there? How many did you draw? You’re looking around the room, which is why you’re making mistakes.’

After children have finished they lay down their crayons and quietly await the next exercises.


Peak, Lois. 1992. ‘Formal Pre-Elementary Education in Japan.’ in Japanese Educational Productivity, edited by Robert Leestma and Herbert Walberg. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press. pp. 58–60. || Amazon || WorldCat


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