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The LOTTERY Schools! (part one)
By Cornelia [8 November 1999, updated 1 September 2009]

Nope, I don't know what I'm doing, but will take the plunge anyway. My nerves are jittery, I am going to enter my innocent, three-year-old in a lottery, which if she wins, will set her on a course through the mine fields and the pit falls of competitive pressure associated with the Japanese education system. Today I picked up the application form ("nyugaku gancho" available between 10:00- 16:00 from 1-9 November except on the weekend and the holiday). I was QUITE nervous, when I considered all the possible blunders, but it went smoothly. I received instructions from the gate keeper, found the right building, wrote my name and address into the registration book and received my preliminary application form.

This lottery I was entering typically has about 500 plus entrants, of which about 80 are picked randomly, and interviewed. Out of those interviewees about 20 are chosen to enter: A PRESTIGIOUS UNIVERSITY AFFILIATED KINDERGARTEN/NURSERY part of the "Kokuritsu" (National) nursery schools network.

I am a very unlikely prospect, because, I am a foreign, unmarried, working mom. My daughter also does not have an official Japanese statement of address/residence (juminhyo). They generally prefer stay-at-home moms for their group of kids. And, if my daughter were to get in, my biggest problem is "how will she be moved at 11 am from kindergarten/nursery school (starts at age 3), known in Japanese as "Yochien", to daycare without anyone knowing that Mom is off at work?" Again, I don't know what I'm doing, but MY mother always said, "Where there's a will there's a way." Besides I don't for one second believe that we will even make it to the interview process.

So why bother?

Well, I have been in this country for seven going on eight years now. And I just have an itch to butt heads with the system. I want to make it to the interview process. I want to see what happens when illiterate, immigrant mom takes her Japanese fluent and incredibly gregarious half Japanese/half west-gaijin child to the all important interview. I want to shake things up a bit. I want to see cracks in the seamless front of the committee. AND I think my kid could benefit from being in with a group of smart kids.

Yes, ultimately I want what my parents wanted for me. A good education. The deal is that these elite schools have a bit of curricular freedom that the local state run schools don't have. And the price is affordable, even though semi-private schools, because of the University sponsorship and national government subsidy. For example, a year at the much praised Nishi-machi school in Hiroo is about 1,800,000 yen (Yep, count 'em - FIVE zeros and SEVEN digits total). A year at the particular lottery school that I am aiming for is about 110,000 yen.

I really don't know anything at all, and the Japanese are hard pressed to explain it to me unless I ask incredibly specific questions. Otherwise, they look at me quite bewildered, and say something like, "Everyone knows that." (This is a common occurrence, the assumption of learning information by osmosis.) So what I have come up with in the next few paragraphs might be full of mistakes, some probably caused by my poor Japanese comprehension. Taking another deep breath, here goes:

Kokuritsu nursery schools - bits and pieces:
This comes from my sources:

"Two years ago, when my daughter was 3 (actually 2 1/2 at the time and still in diapers) there were about 525 trying for the lottery for 3 year old girls. 20 were selected after interviews of both mother and child. Naturally, the criteria for selection is kept a secret and there are all sorts of theories. The Blank Slate Theory, The Mother-Child Bond Theory, The Just a Normal Class Theory. My personal favorite is the 'The Odd Ball theory' which certainly works for my daughter's class.

The kokuritsu are more or less elevator schools with competition getting tougher as you go up. (I've heard about 10% gets dropped from Elem. to Jr. High, and 20% are dropped before High school at the Ochanomizu kokuritsu). But the teachers are really good, the parents take great interest in their child's education, and, at least in the case of Ochanomizu, there's the unparalleled, fantastically huge, wild and wooly "o-niwa" play area.

Most days for the first two years, school is from 9 to 11. Kids whose mothers work, have baby sitters (such as granny), part of the time at least. No child also goes to day care. Not certain if this is a rule or not. One rule you might want to be aware of is that you must walk or use public transportation. No cars or bicycles. They are very strict with this rule. There are also a bunch of other rules and traditions that might just drive you mad. One of them for the Ochanomizu kokuritsu is that you must live within 30 minutes door to door. Only one parent is allowed to be present during the application process (the lottery and the interview).

The fee is 66,000 per year, paid in two lump sums, plus another 40,000 at the end of the year for various expenditures. Not sure about elementary age but maybe it's in the same range as the yochien.

If you don't get into the kokuritsu, there are good points about the local schools. The kids all live close by and provide instant playmates. Local Schools also have after school care through 3rd grade. Bad point: the local schools all must follow the same curriculum, whether you like it or not.

The National schools try out all sorts of new methods on their students. I think that's why they pick the best and brightest. So they can't foul them up too much!

There are magazines you can buy at this time of the year about the Kokuritsu schools and the application process. Just go into any bookstore or magazine shop and ask 'kokuritsu kyoiku no setsume no hon hoshin desu kedo'.

These schools are so 'elite' due to the prestige of being associated directly with a certain university. This makes them very hard to get into, because of the incredible numbers of applicants. They have a status which makes them seem very like private schools, but they are not. Rather they are 'national' schools funded by the Japanese government as opposed to the local city government. They almost all use a lottery system to bring the number of applicants down to manageable numbers. They are also often underfunded, and the mothers have a lot of 'toban' (responsibility). For example a mother may have to provide a bento (though not always for the 3 & 4 year olds who go home in time for lunch) every day since there isn't a cafeteria, and often the mothers are expected to organize every main event as well as clean up afterwards. It's not as simple as just dropping your kids off in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon, like you might with the local school.

The interview at the 'yochien' level is not a smarts test, they talk to the parents and just watch the children play. So the statement about the smart kids might be in question. One idea of the lottery is to get all types of people. My friend's daughter pushed another girl and made her cry in the interview and the pusher was chosen while the crybaby was not! What they are looking for changes from year to year, it being a guinea pig school for new education theories. It's eliteness is more in your incredible luck. (The boys' school Tsukuba one that I did was lottery-interview-lottery again because more than 5,000 apply!). I learned a lot from the experience and I hate to say it but I may try again for my youngest in two years."

Some famous LOTTERY schools close to where I live. The word "fuzoku" means attachment or belonging to, so you can see that each of these schools is attached to a specific university:

1) Ochanomizu Joshi Daigaku Fuzoku Yochien (03) 5978-5883
2-1-1 Otsuka, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112-8610, Japan
Forms to enter the lottery are available from 1-9 November. Your child must be 3 years old by April 1, the start of the school year.
(can enter from 3 and 4 years old)
koukou - high school (girls only)
chugakko - middle school (boys & girls)
shogakko - primary school (boys & girls)
yochien - (the "yochien" age group, 3-5 yrs old, boys & girls)

2) Gakugei (A Music & Arts University in Tokyo) Daigaku Fuzoku Takehaya Yochien (03) 3811-8983 4-2-1 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112
koukou - high school (boys and girls)
chugakko - middle school (boys and girls)
shogakko - primary school (boys and girls)
yochien - (starts at 4, boys and girls)
(drop around 25% on the way up, several campuses that funnel into only one high school)

3) Tsukuba Daigaku Fuzoku Shogakko
3-29-1 Otsuka, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112
(only starting at 6 years old)
kotogakko - high school (boys and girls)
chugakko - middle school (boys and girls)
shogakko - primary school (boys and girls)

In part two, I'll let you know my experience of the lottery, and if we made it or not. But for now I'll just let you know the results of this morning's phone call: A "juminhyo" will not be necessary in the case of a foreigner, though of course she must present her foreigner registration card (gaikokujin torokusho) to prove address and right to live in Japan. The lottery is taking place on Thursday, 11 November. Keep your fingers crossed!

The LOTTERY Schools! (part two)
By Cornelia [12 November 1999]

As I mentioned before I picked up an application for the lottery for entrance to the Ochanomizu Joshi Daigaku Fuzoku Yochien on Monday, 8 November. It consisted of about 5 pages of information, procedure and forms. With a little help from my neighbor, I carefully wrote in my daughter's name, age, sex, which class she was applying for, her mother's name, her address, how many minutes she lives from the campus and a phone number. There were 5 forms all on one page separated by perforations.

Then I read that she would need a "juminhyo" if she went on to phase 2 of the application procedure, and made an urgent phone call, to verify if it also was necessary for foreigners. The answer was no.

I went to the post office and purchased my "yubin kawase" of 1600 yen application fee, for a total of 1700 yen. I asked the post office staff to write in the name of the Yochien in kanji (since I copy kanji poorly).

Then I headed up the hill to the campus. I had no trouble finding the right building. All I did was follow the other parents hurrying toward what turned out to be the auditorium. When I arrived at 10:10 am I was in for a bit of a shock. The section of seats set aside for parents of 3 year old girls applying was packed, and becoming more packed. For that day's procedure many mothers had their daughter and possibly another child along with them.

We were directed to seats in the order in which we entered the building. Every 10 minutes or so the front-most row of people was asked to rise and stand in a line over on the side. After about an hour of this there were many empty rows up front, and because the back was still filling up, we were then asked to stand and move, still in the same order, up to the front rows and sit down again. Finally my row was called up, and it was my turn to go to the little desk and hand over my form. (I had spied upon the people ahead of me and had by now figured out which item to present where and when.) The first lady proofed that all necessary blanks had been filled in and then applied a hanko and a blotter to the hanko mark. The second lady then stamped a number 5 times, once on each form. I thought this was my lottery number, but it turned out to be my "order" number. I was number 306!

Then I proceeded to the next desk where I presented my money order for 1600 yen, had my paper with the forms separated into two sections, and received one section back with a date stamp on the receipt part. I was free to leave with my precious 306. I was the 306th parent to brave the tedium of sitting for one and a half hours for an opportunity to get my kid into this nursery school.

The following day was the big day, the day when more men might be seen in the audience. Since one parent is often perceived to be luckier over the other parent, father's might take the morning off in order to apply their luck to this complete game of chance.

I was a characteristic 5 minutes late for a procedure that started at 9:15 sharp and was to end no later than 11:00. I was quickly calmed by the sight of a great many other latecomers. On a blackboard up on the stage was posted a large announcement that this year there were 551 applicants for the girls' class and 70 would be lucky enough to go on to the next phase of the selection. I thought that a chance in nine wasn't too bad.

There was a bit of a speech going on, which I didn't understand. I simply sat in my section of numbers 301-450. A man on my right was reading a corner of his newspaper. A lady up a row to the right was snoozing train style. And another lady was reading a book. People seemed fairly relaxed. There were even one or two infants brought along by their mothers. Apparently the restriction on children on this day did not apply to babies still nursing.

Up on the stage a process of was going on that was vaguely ceremonial. Trays of little balls were held up to be viewed. A small revolving canister was turned to show that it was in working order. Then the first 50 numbers were called to stand over on the side and file up the steps onto the stage one at a time. The first man was asked to look in the canister and at the trays. The second person, a lady, was asked to take a paddle and stir the balls after they had been poured into a clear bucket. At this there was a soft but audible chuckle from the parents sitting in the audience.

Then the balls were poured into the revolving canister through a clear funnel. Finally, each person in the line went up to the canister, turned it once, and then left, down the steps, down the aisle and out the door! I couldn't figure it out. I had been thinking more in the line of a canister full of pieces of paper, and 70 pieces of paper being fished out, and there numbers being announce, and so on. After a bit, the next 50 numbers were called to stand over to the side. And the next 50, always in order. Finally I knew that there were not any numbers on these little balls in the canister.

Then I noticed that every once in a while someone did not automatically exit, but stood aside at the table up on the stage for a moment, received three papers, and then left the auditorium. I realized that these people were "winners".

My set of 50 numbers was called. I made my way over to the side of the auditorium. I was promptly guided almost to the head of the line, since my number was 306. So I realized that we were all getting our turns in exactly the same order that we had arrived to register the day before. I went up onto the stage, turned the canister, and out rolled a little orange ball, heard a string of words that included something sounding like "gomen", and realizing that red was not the winning color, headed out.

I must admit that I felt a certain sense of relief. No more forms to deal with that night, no more time lost from work the following day. No difficult choice looming ahead for me and my daughter.

In the knave there was a pile of forms for the purpose of receiving a partial refund deposited straight into ones bank account of 900 yen. Naturally I did not have my account information with me.

I went home light-headed because it was over, not overly disappointed since after all there would be another opportunity the following November. Also slowly realizing that all of those 551 children represented by those numbers were considered pretty much interchangeable. That a pool of 70 was considered big enough from which to select the precious 20 who would be invited to join the school. Wow! So that's how the lottery works. Too bad they haven't been able to come up with a more efficient way that takes less time.

I'm sorry I can't tell you what would have happened next. If one of you knows, then please help me fill in that part! (email me at: not available)

22 November 1999: A two year old girl who had passed the entrance (lottery and interview) was abducted and strangled to death by a mother of another 2 year old girl that got through the lottery but did not pass the interview. This made national news due to the highly unusual circumstances of the murder and caused a flurry of comments and scrutiny of the current state of motherhood in Japan, and the competitive pressure to get ones children into these elite schools.

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