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

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


Kit Kats are one of the more popular LUCKY SNACKS for entrance-exam takers: because their name, as pronounced in Japanese (KITO KATSU) can also mean- I WILL SURELY PREVAIL !  And chocolate is considered a BRAIN FOOD which is good to eat before taking a test

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 grueling (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.

One of the more popular lucky charms for helping pass entrance examinations. Octopus - pronounced by the Japanese as OKU TOH PASS ( which is a homophone for- "Put it down and you`ll pass !" )

One of the more popular lucky charms for helping pass entrance examinations. Octopus – pronounced by the Japanese as OKU TOH PASS ( which is a homophone for- “Put it on your desk and you`ll pass !” )

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

A shop near Tsukuba displays products to help exam takers- popular energy drinks with special limited edition LUCKY LABELS

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 (exam-takers), or their parents, to pray at. You will find it VERY crowded this week!

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.

An E-ma votive tablet on sale at a Tenmangu Shrine with a picture of the great Heain Period scholar Sugawara no Michizane. Exams takers (or their parents) write their wishes on the back and hang them at the shrine

An E-ma votive tablet on sale at a Tenmangu Shrine with a picture of the great Heian Period scholar Sugawara no Michizane. Exams takers (or their parents) write their wishes on the back and hang them at the shrine. Because The deified Michizane (Tenjin-sama)’s vehicle is a cow – Tenmangu and Tenjin Shrine have been getting more visitors than usual because this year is the Year-of-the Cow (2021)

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 character representing the great scholar Sugawara no Michizane, 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

Good luck charms for exam takers in Arakawaoki near Tsukuba

A display of lucky foods and items for exam takers near Tsukuba