A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

To Help Students Pass Entrance Exams- Prayers, Amulets, and a Clever Array of LUCKY CHARMS (合格祈願)


Kit Kats are one of the most popular LUCKY SNACKS for entrance exam takers


By Avi Landau


This year’s JUKENSEI (受験生), the students taking the junior high, high school, or university entrance examinations, and even more so, their mothers, are on edge these days, as we head into the heart of Japan’s gruelling (and make or break) January through March testing period, with more than a few of Tsukuba’s famous KYOIKU MAMA (education minded moms) appearing to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

In Japan, mothers support their test-taking kids in various ways. They drop them off and pick them up at JUKU (private after-school cram schools), make sure the whole family gets the appropriate flu shots and other medical prophylactics so that test takers stay healthy, take care of ALL the housework so that their kids can remain chore-free, cook nutritious, brain power promoting food, and of course, always make sure that their sons or daughters keep on studying. It is also usual for Tsukuba mothers to stay home with their jukensei offspring while their husbands and non-jukensei kids go off somewhere to enjoy the New Year’s Holiday.

This year's popular lucky exam passing items
This year’s popular lucky exam-passing items

More interesting for me than these prosaic forms of supporting the young test takers are the non-rational forms of assistance which are often provided. One very common custom is visiting and praying at a TENMANGU or TENJIN SHRINE, the type of shrine believed to be most effective for helping pass examinations.  A votive wish tablet (O-FUDA) is usually purchased at the shrine office and placed in the home with the hope of bringing good test results.

Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Tokyo popular place for Tsukuban JUKENSEI, or their parents, to pray
Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Tokyo, a popular place for Tsukuban JUKENSEI, or their parents, to pray

It is also popular to prepare certain LUCKY FOODS or buy LUCKY ITEMS whose powers derive from their names, often in modified form, which are connected with, or sound similar to certain Japanese words, such as KATSU (to win), UKARU (to pass), or even the English word PASS. These lucky items (in general) are called ENGIMONO in Japanese, with the items on sale connected distinctly with examinations being known as GOKAKU KIGAN SHOHIN (合格祈願商品). The way certain objects can come to be considered auspicious because the pronunciation of their name resembles a POSITIVE WORD is called GORO AWASE (語呂合わせ).

Let me give you a few examples of some things which are thought to be lucky because of  significant sound-word associations.

Most traditionally, on the day of an examination (or a sporting match), Katsu-Don (a cutlet on rice) or Ton Katsu (a pork cutlet) is eaten. This is because KATSU, which means a cutlet, is a homophone for the word KATSU, which means VICTORY. Thus, dishes containing KATSU (cutlets) are considered ENGIMONO, which help bring about success.

Various companies have taken advantage of Japan’s soft spot for GORO AWASE, and with every test taking season new products are introduced to the ENGIMONO market, some of which really STRETCH IT in their efforts to have their items name resemble a positive word.

In recent years, one of the most popular of these products has been Nestle’s Kit Kat bar, a chocolate covered wafer, which can be bought at any convenience store or supermarket. The reason this item is considered to have luck-giving power is a modified form of the product’s name, which is KITTO KATSU (きっと勝) meaning “surely you will win”! Many also believe that eating chocolate on the morning of an exam stimulates the brain and because of these two factors, Kit Kat bars have been sold briskly during recent exam seasons. Many of Tsukuba’s juku teachers actually hand them out to their students at this time of year.

Some companies have special exam season packages for their usual products, which promote a LUCKY variant of the item’s brand name. Probably the most famous of these is the corn puff snack KA-RU (curl), which when exams come around, are sold in special bags with UKA-RU (PASS) printed on them.

KA-RU written as UKA-RU (pass) with a Sugawara no Michizane character for the exam season
KA-RU written as UKA-RU (pass) with a Sugawara no Michizane character for the exam season

One popular good luck products in recent years has been the OCTOPUS, in various forms. This is because the Japanese pronounce this word as OKU (put it there) TO (and you) Pass (pass!)- DISPLAY IT AND YOU PASS!

Koala figures were very IN last year, as they supposedly never OCHIRU (fall or fail). Some company has actually been marketing lucky koala poop. The reasoning behind this is that the cuddly marsupial’s stool (unko) has no smell, which makes it good UN, or UN GA II which means GOOD LUCK (as well as good poop!).

This year-2011, some companies have been marketing a pentagon ( five-sided) pillow for JUKENSEI to sleep on. GOKAKUDO, the word for pentagon, sounds similar to the word GO-GAKU, which means  PASSING EXAMS. These pillows are available in blue for boys and pink for girls and are called GOKAKUMAKURA – pillows for passing!

GO-KAKU Pillows- to help students pass exams

Talking about OCHIRU (to fall or fail), I remember an interesting story way back, just after the Great Kansai Earthquake. The driver of a bus which had been perilously hanging over the edge of a shattered elevated highway, but which miraculously didn’t fall, was sought out by JUKENSEI from all around Japan who wanted to shake his hand and receive his blessing. This was because he was OCHISO KEDO OCHINAKATTA (he looked like he was gonna fall/fail, but he DIDN’T).

I could go on and on with amusing examples of GORO AWASE good luck charms, but I would like to get back to the topic of the TENJIN/TENMANGU SHRINES which so many students, and even more parents, visit for a little supernatural support in the struggle to pass exams.

Tenmangu shrines are where the deified spirit of the great Heian Period scholar and poet Sugawara No Michizane are enshrined as the God of Scholarship and Learning (as well as natural disasters) TENJIN. Michizane’s story can teach us a lot about traditional Japanese religious thought. A highly respected member of the Heian court, whose poetic skills helped him rise up quickly in the ranks, he became the subject of certain false rumors which led to his banishment from the capital and his being exiled to the far off military outpost of DAZAIFU on the island of Kyushu. Michizane, heartbroken by his separation from the cultural life of the court and his beloved capital, soon died (in 903).

Portrait of Michizane at Mitsukaido's Tenmangu Shrine
Portrait of Michizane at Mitsukaido’s Tenmangu Shrine


After his death, certain natural disasters took place in Japan, including floods and fires caused by lightning. The court decided that this must be the vengeful spirit of the wronged Michizane, and the once persona-non-grata was enshrined as the God TENSHIN, who if respected and properly pacified would (hopefully) refrain from taking further revenge on the Japanese populace.

Since Michizane had been such a respected poet, scholar, and calligrapher, over time TENJIN evolved into the God of Learning to whom supplications were made by those seeking academic success.

There are at present more than 10,000 TENMANGU SHRINES dedicated to TENJIN throughout Japan. The most famous of these are in Dazaifu, Kyushu, where Michizane was exiled and died, Kyoto (the Kitano Tenjin shrine) where he was born, and Egara Tenjin in Kamakura.

Examination success amulets from Dazaifu Tenmangu
Examination success amulets from Dazaifu Tenmangu

Though some parents of Tsukuban JUKENSEI might actually visit one of these far off shrines to pray for their children’s success, Tokyo’s Yushima Tenjin is the shrine most commonly visited by residents of our city. There is also a Tenmangu Shrine in Mitsukaido (now Joso City). Besides praying before these shrines’ main halls, worshipers usually buy an amulet (OMAMORI), or a more expensive wish tablet (OFUDA).

Mitsukaido's Tenmangu
Mitsukaido’s Tenmangu


Over the coming weeks you will probably be seeing many JUKENSEI, and over certain weekends Tsukuba will be flooded with them ( and the hotels all booked up by them). If you look closely you might see some of them holding their lucky charms from a Tenmangu Shrine. But since an amulet or wish tablet acquired has to be returned the NEXT YEAR TO THE SAME SHRINE, which is a bit troublesome, the lucky food products (which are just eaten and not returned anywhere) are becoming more and more popular.

O-Fuda from Dazaifu Tenmangu 10,000 Yen An O-Fuda from Dazaifu Tenmangu costs 10,000 Yen


  • Jasper says:

    greetings, outstanding post, and an amazing understand! one for my bookmarking.

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Very interesting article. I enjoyed and it reminded me of the past time.
    Makes me want to write a long comment. Please bear with me.
    Next time I would like to make comments in ten spicy sentences.

    Kit Kat for Jukennsei is an excellent idea both in terms of Goro-Awase and easily consumable energy for the total body.
    When I was a Jukensei for High-school, my mother asked an intimate friend of my eldest brother who just had passed exam for entering the Tokyo-University Literature course on his third try, he graduated that Univ. after eight years(it was limit). That meant that he made most effort for Tokyo-University-News. If he could stay one more year he would graduate the Univ. same year as I. Very unique person.

    When I did my own studying for exams, I put both my legs and belly into a sleeping bag which I bought from a dealer in Akihabara-US-Army used goods from the Korean War. I bought a tent, US Army canteen, the sleeping bag,( I was not sure whether it was used to carry a dead body or not, but it was the best quality made using feathers), also the canteen was made of stainless steel, and with a handle for taking Buta-jiru(pork-miso-soup) directly from a very big pot. Because of that Korean-War and also the Vietnamese-War, Japan developed rapidly and underwent a very quick economical recovery after the ruin and destruction of WWⅡ(this history should be taught in the Japanese school curriculum). But Jyuken-Benkyo forced me to skip some important educational experiences including practical science experiments.

    What is the meaning of Jyuken-Senso(受験戦争:Entrance Exam-War)for the Japanese?

    Pass Exam, and entering some higher school, it is like to buy special express tickets for future for children in even the early age (recently including Kindergarten).
    ① It has been true in Japanese Society that High-class governmental officials (Before WWⅡ,high rank Military officers too), executives of big private companies: like Mitsubishi・・Mitsui・・ have been graduates of Very famous Universities(Before WWⅡ,7 former Imperial Univ., Tokyo-high-grade school of Teachers: Now Tsukuba-Univ.,3 National-high-grade Trade Univ. Army & Navy Academies and their Univs. few private Univ.: Waseda,Keio),those are supposed to be called Elite.

    ② There has been lack of knowledge especially in house wives today that there are big competition among those Elites even it can not be recognized to get higher positions even they got certain tickets, those are ability of work, personality, leadership. It is more important in real life. And there are many people who do not care about to get higher positions but care about own work and whether it arise his interest or curiosity and could have a good results (those are or should be researchers).

    There are so many parents whose cares about their children’s school are Names of schools, some might be snobbish? They should learn their are many way to live, better make their children to deside by themselves, better just a little bit stay away.
    They may have too much time to spend taking care of JYUKENNSEI. Some mothers went with her child to the Entry-Ceremony of the Organization in which her offspring entered. Amazing!!

    ③ Still in Japan Dr and Master Degrees are evaluated so much in the society to compare other countries. We do not call someone with Dr-degree as ”Dr Sato” just call with his position name ”Sato-Bucyo: Director Sato”. Real Education in Univ. might start from Master (Educate oneself). For me most of my life in Univ. was club activity. Final 1years and half I think I studied. I wished to have 1-2 years go around world travel after Univ( Our generation we couldn’t).

    ④ After Meiji revolution (1867), there has been no apparent class existing in Japan (Samurai-Class: ruling class abolished). Every one could choose their future occupation superficially. It then became important the kind of education they got.
    Education costs money so if someone was born in very poor family like a peasant he or she usually got primary school-degree “YOMI KAKI SOROBAN:読み書き算盤:
    reading,writing,use counting equipment),
    There were also poor family of former Samurai-class.
    Their children went Teachers School or Military schools where Government covered their living fee. Such kind of schools had very competitive examination.
    Almost 95% of children finished primary school. So there are no talking of Jyuken-Sennso as general.
    ⑤ Recently especially Japan’s development of Economy began around 1965, most family can afford to send their children to get high degree education, Jyuken-Sennso became harder and harder.

    This is my opinion Jyuken-Benkyo(Study for Exam.) is not so bad thing, because studying is very important for one whole-life. I think Test–methods have problems (Though I never checked questions since I passed Exam. 40years ago!!). I only find that young-people do not know our history, politics, economy, basic sciences but know singers-names, comic hero’ name, also more than 10years of English education they cannot use English, Chinese, sometime Japanese!

    Old Man’ s Sigh like ancient Egyptian Wall-paintings or Nara-Daibutsu-Den Yaneura!!

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Sorry there are many mistakes in my earlier comment including spelling too.

    Doctor and Master degrees are not so valued in Japan compared with other countries.(I wrote in my former comment:are evaluated so much).

    I don’t know the reason for this but I guess that ordinaryl people think that researching is such a detailed activity that getting a Dr-ship would make a person indifferent socially. I think creative people are somehow considered not usual(Kijin・Henjin:奇人・変人). Would those unusual people buy Omamoris for entrance examinations or not? About this I don’t know either because I am a usual person, like a pebble in the Hanamuro-river.

    In Meiji-Era there was a proverb “SUE WA HAKASE KA DAIJIN KA”(末は博士か大臣か:In the future he will be a Dr. or Minister!),then, a Dr-ship was respected very much- as were three magis in the New Testament.