This week there is something weighing heavy on the minds of many students who’d like to advance to college: the National Center Test for University Admissions. It’s being held Jan. 18-19. Those with their heart set on a particular school who don’t get a good enough score may choose to spend a year, or in some cases two or three, studying as a rōnin. With this immense pressure, a little luck is traditionally gotten via charms from shrines or temples, but the trend has built up for companies to release seasonal products in support of test-takers. Well, maybe some are more support than others. . .
First, a quick primer on recurring key concepts and vocabulary:
Cherry blossoms: The school year starts in spring in Japan, just when cherry trees are exploding with pink. Of course, they also represents the kids fulfilling their potential.
Daruma: Symbolizes perseverance and bring good luck. The dolls come with blank eyes; you draw one pupil when you set a goal and the other when you accomplish it. I’m sure there are lots of one-eyed daruma hanging out with high schoolers right now!
Koala: They don’t fall out of trees and in Japanese that same word for “fall” is also used to describe “failing” a test.
Kohaku: The colors red and white are good luck!
Non-slip: The verb “to slip” in Japanese can be used to mean slip up and “fail” a test, so friction is desirable.
There is no better way to kick off this list than with a product said to be a pioneer of the test-taker support boom: KitKat. In Northern Kyushu dialect, the name of the candy bar with the “have a break” slogan appropriate for kids chained to their desks, sounds just like the words, “You’ll win for sure!” People realizing this pun apparently boosted sales of the candy on their own in the early 2000s to the point where it was noticed in-house at Nestle. Nationwide campaigns started in 2003.
Fast forward to this year, where the company is collaborating with 15 universities to present inspirational messages on “Kohaku pack” KitKats (which come in milk and white chocolate). “(-ω-1) If you see a face in an equation, that’s a break,” says mascot Chibunny of the Chiba Institute of Technology. Bouhsear from the Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences says, “-ing, let’s go one step at a time in progressive tense!”
But that’s not all Nestle is up to this season. Singer-songwriter Miwa has been recruited as the campaign girl, and the catch phrase — “The cherry blossoms will surely bloom!” — is apparent in her music video of the test-taker support song (above) as well as the roll cake she came up with for “Saku Saku Cafe” (“Blooming Cafe”) inside Nescafe Harajuku.
Vanilla ice cream and heart-shaped chocolate accent a pink cake rolled around cream and a cherry blossom-shaped dollop of red bean paste. The cafe also serves meals re-creating favorites at five university’s cafeterias including taco rice and a chicken nanban bowl. It’s open through Jan. 19.
For those still feeling peckish, here are some other snack/food related promotions:
• Crunky teamed up with private cram school Meiko to use their mascot Professor Daruma to impart inspirational messages in their “test-taking share pack.”
• Daruma-themed Koala’s March cookies mean you can give your friends a double boost of luck with a special message written in the spot provided on the back of the package. (Speaking of Koalas, though, if you want to be really hardcore, you would have gotten your hands on one of these bookmarks made from koala poop at Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya. If that doesn’t guarantee. . . something, then I dunno what will.)
• Chicken Ramen came up with two flavors that work in punny inspirational messages. Yuzu koshō (“Don’t give up on the school you want to get into!”) and garlic chicken (“Go get your chicken and success!”) went on sale Jan. 6.
• Tenoritama rice seasoning’s chick character Piyo-chan prays intently with a different expression depending on which one of three packages you pick up. The renamed “Oinori-tama” (a pun on “praying”) will be on sale until Feb. 28.
• Natto Queen 2013 Karen Miyazaki recently appeared at an “pep rally” encouraging students at prep school Waseda Yobiko to “Stick to [their studies] like natto!”
• From Aqua has water bottles with caps that click into a position that allows you to drink instead of coming completely off, but for some reason around this time of year the sound of that click, “Kachi!” is a pun on “victory” and the cap not “falling” off is imbued with the same significance as a koala staying in a tree.
• HKT48 and Lotte tied up to produce gum and throat drops “for you, who are doing your best.” The just barely test taker-oriented drops contain Honey and Karin (which is an herb, I guess) for your Throat. Are there 48 per package?
If that seems like a lot, it’s probably only the tip of the test-taker marketing ice berg. Perhaps the biggest indication of that is that it’s not only food companies cashing in.
• Triumph International is selling “Kanapan,” a short way to say “My Wish Will Come True?! Underwear.” Apparently the brand was perceived as lucky by some shoppers, which is how the campaign was born. These undies’ high waist is meant to prevent chilly tummies (and thereby the common cold) and they come in red, pink, or black for ¥1,995.
• While we’re on the topic of underwear, Seirogan (an herbal treatment for diarrhea) hopes that students will be free of gastric distress as they challenge the exam. To that end they are giving away 555 (a somewhat involved pun) pairs of “certain victory” lucky test-taking underwear in a unisex style.
• Seirogan may be intent on keeping students out of the bathroom, but Bathclin wants them in it, and more specifically in the bath soaking with their test-taker support salts that are the fruit of analyzing and recreating the scent of the type of cherry tree in Japan (from Okinawa) that blooms the earliest.
• “All you test takers out there, let’s get through this exam with Febreze!” Former pro tennis player Shuzo Matsuoka lends his presence to Febreze’s campaign, which encourages students to blast all the flu and other viruses out of their room after practicing with this interactive website.
• Coolens released lightweight “non-slip” glasses made with “slipless rubber” at the temple and a special nose rest designed especially for Japanese noses, twice as soft as other nose rests, that will also, of course, keep the glasses from slipping as students bow their heads to pore over their textbooks. ¥5,900.
• JR Nakatsu Station in Oita Prefecture uses sand on the rails to keep the trains from slipping, but as they do every year, they set some aside as “slip prevention sand” for students during the test-taking season. A total of 1,180 charms containing the sand were blessed at a local shrine and passed out last month.
• Tokyo Disney Land and Sea are offering cookies and stationary supplies with messages like “Gōkaku deki-mouse yō ni” instead of the usual “dekimasu.” (“May you pass [the test.]“)
• Masahiro Kuwano developed his own unique good luck item, the levitating “Ukari-Masu” (which involves a few puns, but the main thing is that the square cup floats and and one of the meanings of the verb “ukaru” is “to pass [a test]“). Sales have been picking up over the past couple years; he sold 300 in 2013 for ¥945 apiece.
If the test taker nearest you actually just needs to get out of the house, an aquarium in Yamaguchi Prefecture has formed a “test-taking cheer squad” featuring Holacanthus passer, Octopus cyanea, Rhinogobius sp. and Patiria pectinifera. Why those particular creatures? Well, the reasons are pretty elaborate in some cases, but mainly, because their names or shapes have some kind of connection to “passing.”
Anyway, we here at Japan Pulse really, really hope everyone meets their academic goals this testing season, and we won’t even make you buy anything.
BONUS: Pokohiro rounds up some types of encouragement boys want from their girlfriends as they are about to face the Center Test.
1) “Let’s pass together.” (He calls this “So cliché” but then admits that it really does feel nice to hear.)
2) “If you fail, I’ll break up with you.” (Ah yes, tough love. Very motivating.)
3) “If we end up at different universities we might cheat on each other.” (Pokohiro reinforces this dire prediction by stating that he personally never saw a couple who attended different universities last.)
4) “It’s OK if you fail.” (Of course, not everyone’s personality is suited to threats. Some guys just need to be reassured. Aww.)