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Mock exam in Japan draws fire for evoking links between Islam and terrorists

A portion of an English mock exam in question is seen in the city of Saga on Jan. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Shizuka Takebayashi)

SAGA -- An English mock exam given to high school students in Saga Prefecture in southwestern Japan has drawn criticism over a question that could be construed as associating Islam with terrorists, leading the prefectural board of education to express its regret.

    The English test for first-year high school students was part of prefecture-wide mock exams for first- and second-year high school students. One sentence in the exam quoted a person's father as saying Egyptian boys who couldn't earn money would "go to a mosque for their food and become terrorists." The question was prepared by a voluntary study group comprising prefectural high schools and other bodies.

    After the exam, some school officials and other concerned parties pointed out that the passage in question was suggestive of an association between Islam and terrorists. In response, the Saga Prefectural Board of Education commented, "It was an inappropriate question. It's a matter of human rights awareness among teachers, and it is extremely regrettable that they didn't notice it."

    The mock exam was held between Jan. 8 and 10 at 24 public and private high schools in Saga Prefecture. Among those who took the test, about 3,100 were first-year students. The sentence in question was part of an English reading comprehension question that quoted an essay written by a then first-year high school student that won the top prize in a national English composition contest for high school students in the 2013 academic year.

    A portion of an English mock exam in question is seen in this photo provided by the Saga Prefecture high school education study group, which created the exam.

    In the English reading exam, a student is described as traveling in Egypt with their parents. The student sees a local boy trying to sell some picture postcards, saying, "One dollar!" and, witnesses other boys also shouting the same words during the trip. The student asks their father what will happen if they can't earn that one dollar, and the father replies, "If they can't, they will go to a mosque for their food and become terrorists."

    The same exam also contained sentences in which the student compares Egypt and Britain, and says they saw no boys shouting "One dollar!" in England, suggesting a gap between rich and poor countries. The essay ends with an expression of hope for ending poverty and war in the world.

    Before the English exam was given, about 10 teachers at a school in charge of creating it and another three teachers at other schools checked it a total of six times between June and November 2020. After the mock exam, questions were raised by teachers at three schools in charge of scoring the answer sheets.

    Shigeki Watanabe, chairman of the study group that created the mock exam, explained, "We selected a text that was easy for high school students to read." He added, "It is true that there was a problem with the selection of the material. We'd like to review our checking systems for each subject."

    (Japanese original by Shizuka Takebayashi, Saga Bureau)

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