One of my students reminded me of this today. Her son takes his university entrance exams Saturday and Sunday. This is happening all over Japan currently. And it's no small deal; if you pass these exams and get into one of the best universities, you're made.
If you fail... you become a freeter. This is the Nihon version of the slacker, the jobless slob who lives at home with his or her parents, maybe working part-time jobs but generally going nowhere.
In some ways, this is rebellion against the crushing office worker conformity that is Japanese adulthood. Some freeters are doing the "find yourself" thing, much like our slackers during the 90s. They work the part-time jobs and travel or study English until they decide what they want to do with their lives.
I'll never forget the time my friends and I were invited to a woman's house for a big feast during my first trip to Japan. Partway through the meal, her son came in. He was in his late 20s, and had just spent his post-grad years traveling and backpacking in Asia and Europe.
"What are you doing now?" someone asked him.
After a sigh, he said, "Now... I'm a salaryman."
Another choice is to become ronin. Ronin is a term from the old samurai days, which means a freelance or masterless samurai. Now it means a kid who bombed the entrance exams and has to spend an extra year or two studying in cram school to pass and get into a good college. It's possible, but it's difficult, like trying to compete in a 40 meter race starting 10 meters farther back from the other athletes.
The pressure on high school students is so far beyond anything I experienced. Their time investment in school is probably twice that of an American student's. But if they leap this massive hurdle, they get 4 years of college student fun. At this point, things tend to reverse themselves. Here, American college students are considered fairly studious, while Japanese students supposedly play and get drunk a lot.
Well... we know the truth behind that particular myth. College is a time for working hard and playing hard and drinking is universal. But if Japanese students do get this time to breathe and experience independence, then I say it's a good thing.
Because soon enough will come lifetime employment and wearing identical black business suits, and riding the local trains endlessly while clutching briefcases, a stunned look on their faces.