Japanese Jukus: The Cramming Lifestyle

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 8, Volume 112

By Stefanie Chen 

The relief when a school day ends courses through you as you think about all of the exciting things that you are now free to do. You can sleep in and forget that school and work exist until the next day. But not everyone gets this relief. For some, something forces itself into this tranquility: cram school.

In Japan, cram schools, commonly known as “gakushu juku” (study schools), are privately run after school tutoring programs that help students with their performance in regular school in addition to offering cram classes for specific subject areas or major examinations. They aren’t dissimilar to prep services for the SHSAT or SAT, but the conditions and costs are much more brutal.

Japanese children typically begin attending jukus when they are in their third or fourth year of primary school. According to a 1992 article from The New York Times, the Yano Research Institute in Japan found that almost 4.4 million students were enrolled in over 50 thousand cram schools. This total represents 18.6 percent of Japanese elementary school students and 52.2 percent of students in seventh to ninth grade. More than 37 percent of Japanese students attended preparatory schools in 2018 in order to prepare themselves for entrance exams or secure extra assistance in problem areas at school.

The time and money spent on jukus may be beneficial and even necessary for students. Nineteen-year-old female student Rina, who had been going to juku since she was in elementary school, stated that she enjoyed her cram school. She could interact and study with friends in the class, and the teachers were incredibly supportive. However, most students do not have as positive of an experience. Japanese parents often force their children to go to these schools in order to have an enhanced and accelerated educational experience. While these schools are aimed at preparing students for their futures, the stretching hours can lead to deficits in students’ health as well as huge reductions to their leisure time. A nearly universal reluctance to go, along with the long hours and costliness of these cram schools, makes jukus an investment that takes more than it provides for students.

Jukus typically run from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m, with some extending until after 9:00 p.m. These classes take place after school hours and on weekends, holidays, and breaks, leaving almost no free time for their students. Lois Peak describes her experience with a juku in her novel, “Learning to Go to School in Japan,” stating how young children would study until late hours to pass elementary school entrance exams. While these children are still in primary school, they consistently arrive home at late times in order to cram for examinations.

Another case describes Naohiko Harata, an 18-year-old Japanese student interviewed by Japanese author Phil Sudo. Harata stated that after arriving home from the juku, he would study until dinner, as well as afterward, commonly until 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. These jukus leave little time for Japanese children to do anything besides the necessities—a familiar story for Stuyvesant students and our own obsessive study habits.

A questionnaire in 1993 showed that children attending jukus after school typically had fewer hours of sleep and free time than those who didn’t. Those who attended jukus had increased signs of sleep deprivation and eye fatigue. University of Tokyo professor of sociology Ikuo Amano stated that “jukus are harmful to Japanese education and children,” as it isn’t healthy for kids to have such little free time.

Attending jukus isn’t cheap, either. Juku is a multi-billion dollar industry in Japan, with some being large enough to instruct over 20 thousand students. On average, attending a juku as a fourth grader costs 600 thousand to 800 thousand yen a year ($5,200 to $7,000). The cost for older students becomes notably higher with the larger amount of material they are required to cover, reaching up to $13 thousand. The standard Japanese family income in 2020 was around $21 thousand. Most Japanese households don’t have the money for jukus in the first place and must take out loans to pay for the supplementary classes.

As a result, jukus seem to be divided based on who can and cannot afford their services. Those who are less wealthy cannot gain access to jukus as easily as those who have sufficient income to do so. Jukus have often been directly correlated with rises in school and university test scores, making it even more disadvantageous for poorer families to enroll their children in a juku. Essentially, the creation of jukus has created a success system that the majority of the population cannot utilize. Of the different groups of students attending jukus, around 3.8 percent of students come from families with an annual income of less than 4 million yen ($35 thousand) while 28.9 percent come from families with an annual income of 8 million yen ($70 thousand) or more. Even with the piling expenses, many parents still send their children to jukus. Most don’t want to risk their children’s education to help them gain admission to good universities and get good jobs. However, that advantage of jukus still does not change the fact that jukus’ expensive costs allow fewer to afford them, acting as a barrier between the rich and poor.

Cram culture isn’t only a major facet of schooling in Japan, but in several other countries around the world. In fact, Stuyvesant High School is one of the most notorious high schools in this respect. Though only a few months have passed since school began, I have already met countless people who go to similarly structured cram schools during the weekend. Many are beginning to draw parallels between cram schools in the United States and Chinese cram culture. Just like jukus, American cram schools (usually for tests like the ACT and SAT) extend for long hours and boast high prices.

Jukus and cram schools can’t be eradicated, but it is possible to improve the conditions for those attending them. One of the first things that can be done is to make cram schools available for free through volunteering services. Since not all parents have the means to enroll their children in supplementary classes, offering accessible schooling will help lower class families enroll their children in jukus while avoiding falling into debt. The length of cram school sessions is one of the harder aspects to fix due to the amount of information that needs to be taught. However, one way to lessen this obstacle is to encourage peer tutoring in class. While the market for gaining an academic advantage can’t be reduced, we can try our best to make it available for all.