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Islanders' 28-night 'excursion' shows inequality of Japan's univ. admission tests

The Ogasawara Maru passenger and cargo ship is seen docking at Takeshiba pier in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Jan. 12, 2020. From Jan. 20 to Feb. 7 it will undergo annual maintenance and checks. (Mainichi/Akira Okubo)

TOKYO -- The National Center for University Entrance Examinations' entrance tests will be held at venues across Japan on Jan. 18 and 19, the last time they will be administered in their current form.

(Mainichi)

Next year will see the country move to the new university admissions test system, which had originally been designed to introduce private English tests as one of the pillars of its changes. But controversy swirled around the policy, particularly over the burden that taking these exams will put on candidates living in remote areas of Japan, leading to a decision to delay the English section's implementation.

Problems also persist over the distribution of examination venues. This year, a group of high school students from the Ogasawara Islands, which lie scattered far south of Tokyo, came to the capital for the tests and are unable to return to their homes for around a month while the regularly scheduled ship they take for the about 24-hour one-way trip has its operations temporarily suspended.

At Takeshiba pier in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Jan. 12, a group of third-year students at Tokyo Metropolitan Ogasawara High School were among those disembarking from the Ogasawara Maru passenger and cargo ship after a journey of some 1,000 kilometers from Chichijima Island. They were set to take their university entrance exam six days later. The service that arrived that day is the last one before the test dates.

The earliest any of them will be able to return home is Feb. 8, because from immediately after the tests on Jan. 20 the ship, which is the only way to return to the islands, will be out of service for 18 days.

One 18-year-old student dragging a roller suitcase with him said he would be taking the tests in Osaka Prefecture, some 500 kilometers west of Tokyo. He said he chose a venue there because it is close to his grandmother's house, which is where he will stay while on the mainland. With no time to lose between his next connection, I offered some words of sympathy, which he responded to with a wry smile and a quick nod.

The Ogasawara Maru typically completes a round trip from the islands to the capital about once a week, and in an ordinary year is docked for inspections for about two weeks between late January and early February. The circumstances are such that there have been cases before of exam-taking students being stranded on the mainland for 20 days or more.

On top of the inspections, this year the downtime will be used to improve the vessel's emissions control system in accordance with the stiffening of regulations, extending the service's suspension for longer than usual. Including a night spent on the ship, this year's test-takers are being forced to spend at least 29 days and 28 nights on a kind of "exam excursion."

According to Ogasawara High School, many of the candidates will live under the care of relatives while on the mainland, and the Ogasawara village office has established a system to subsidize travel and accommodation costs. But one of the school's teachers said, "There's a considerable mental burden that comes with taking admissions tests while separated from friends and family for an extended period. You can't say they're under the same conditions as candidates on the mainland."

While the sea transport firm and the metropolitan and village governments are making adjustments to put a replacement ship in service during the docked period from next year, the issue of Ogasawara students' extended trip away appears to be resolvable with the end of the national center's tests.

Across the country, there are many regions with island communities that have prepared test venues out of consideration for students trying to get into university. In Nagasaki Prefecture, 13 of its 57 public high schools are on islands. Since the national center tests commenced in January 2009, the four high schools on the islands of Goto, Kamigoto, Iki and Tsushima have been able to use localized test sites.

The impetus for providing testing venues came about when figures including principals of high schools on the islands and teachers in charge of helping students advance to higher education raised their concerns to get arrangements made for pupils. The prefectural board of education entered negotiations with Nagasaki University, which coordinates the exam venues locally, and a solution was eventually found. This year the islands' testing venues are expecting to accommodate around 350 candidates.

Prefectures including Niigata, Shimane, Kagoshima and Okinawa also have testing venues on remote islands. Conversely, some prefectures with relatively large numbers of remote inhabited islands, such as Tokyo and Hokkaido, have not established a single venue in such communities.

A spokesperson for the National Center for University Entrance Examinations said, "We cooperate with each university to decide on test locations, but there are some islands where exam venues have not been established due to issues such as how to avoid information leaks in the delivery of question booklets and the returning of answer sheets."

(Japanese original by Akira Okubo, City News Department)

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