In Japan, unlike America, college admission is determined by one’s passing or failing of one entrance exam on one specific day. There are no chance for re-takes, and there is no alternate test. The rules are strict; if you happen to be sick on that one day, if you get into a car crash on the way there, you could either take the exam while sick or injured, or wait and study for another whole year to take the exam the year after. Furthermore, the rules dictate that you may only take one entrance exam per day. If two prospective schools are having their entrance exams on the same day, you are required to choose the one you prefer more. Students in Japan begin to study for their college entrance exams usually as early as their last year of middle school, studying for a total of four or more years (at school, at home, and in cram schools whose classes often go well past midnight) in preparation for one exam on one day. The rules are strict, admission to the four or five most prestigious programs that everyone tests for is notoriously difficult, and all the hard work may come down to being sick on the one day that determines the course of your life. The system, in a word, is merciless.
My informant lives in Nagoya, Japan, and had up until a month ago, been snared in this system. Having completed her college entrance exam and confirmed her entrance to Sophia University, she looked back on the past few years of her life and told me that it must have been the most stressful time of her life, but that she had her “Toy Story pencil” to help her out. Laughing, half-joking, she said that it actually must have been the pencil that had allowed her to pass the exam.
The “Toy Story pencil” had risen out of a legend circulated at her high school. A few years back, a male student from their high school had passed the entrance exam to Tokyo University, arguably the most prestigious school in Japan. This by itself would not have been legend-worthy, except that nobody had expected very much of him; he had begun to study for the entrance exam his final year of high school when everybody else had already been studying for years, and was ranked a little bit below average in his class. People knew of him, however, because of his obsession with Disney and especially with Toy Story. He watched all the movies, went full-out Woody on Halloween, had a Toy Story pencil case, and was apparently very skilled at drawing pictures of all the characters.
When word got around that he had been accepted to Tokyo University, the rumors and the legends began. He apparently had a pen that he had been using for years, a Toy Story pen that he had bought at some local stationery store. It was well known amongst his immediate classmates that he took pride in the fact that he had not lost that pen for his entire final year of high school, the year that he had finally begun to study for the exam. “He took that pencil everywhere,” My informant said. “I mean, it’s really hard not to lose pencils. I must go through at least like, ten or so a year. So it was pretty impressive, actually.” Thus, the younger students at the high school immediately latched onto the pen as a source of good luck magic in exam-taking, making it a sort of folk object–if you could use that pencil and only that pencil for your final year of high school, and you didn’t lose it and it didn’t break, you would be able to pass any entrance exam you took. My informant and her friends, who had not known the Toy Story boy but had long heard of the legend, had dutifully bought their one and only Toy Story pencil at the beginning of their final year. My informant used the Toy Story pen every day, careful not to break it, keeping track of it all times, and eventually passed the exam to her dream school, Sophia University. There were others though, of course, that used the pencil and failed their exams, but then again, said my informant, the pencil was more of a motivational tool than anything else–just having it made one feel more in control. Over her spring break when she visited me, she gave me a Toy Story pencil and told me that if I took care of it, I would probably see good results for the rest of the semester, and I am still using it now.
This intense fixation on an object for good luck, I believe, arises naturally from Japan’s merciless education system. In this system, the students themselves have little to no control. There is one exam per year; there is a pass or fail. “There are,” said my informant, “so many things that could go wrong. I could’ve gotten sick, and they would’ve just said, too bad, come back next year. I tried so hard for the week before the exam not to go out of the house and to eat healthy and sleep a lot, but still. Everyone gets so paranoid before the exams, and there’ve been stories of people sabotaging each other. There’s so much anxiety.” Anxiety, I thought, was the key word. The Toy Story pencil was a small but effective way to soothe anxiety that could give way to more anxiety. It gave people confidence, which perhaps made them study harder.
The Toy Story pencil reflects the intense collective fear and anxiety in the minds of Japanese students concerning the entrance exam procedure. Grabbing at straws, the students at my informant’s high school had clung to this legend, this folk object, to give themselves some semblance of control–and perhaps, strangely enough, it works.