I sit in a cold classroom with a Japanese lecturer. The student knocks twice on the door, opens it, steps inside and says, “Shitsurei shimasu” (“I am sorry to disturb you”). She bows and approaches our table. Handing over her application form, she is told to sit. While my colleague checks her name and examination number, I pick up her shibou douki, the page detailing her reasons for applying, and quickly scan it for possible conversation starters.

The Japanese lecturer begins by asking her two obvious questions. Why does she want to attend our university? What does she want to do when she graduates? Like most of the students we are seeing today, she has already prepared her Japanese-language response and launches into a memorised speech in a loud monotone, which goes on for some three to four minutes. When she forgets a word, she repeats the preceding sentence until her memory reboots. It sounds like a Buddhist chant. She says the same point-scoring platitudes: she wants to have communication and mutual understanding with foreigners, and she wants to save peoples of the world by doing volunteer work.

While she recites, I look at her starched blue sailor suit, her undyed hair fastened with Hello Kitty hairclips and her white ‘loose sox’, gathering in fluffy folds around her ankles. Her face is hidden behind a surgical mask, but I can see that her hands are clasped tightly in her lap. She is shaking with nervousness. She doesn’t realise that we need her more than she needs us.

In 1992, there were two million eighteen-year-olds in Japan. Because of the drop in the birth rate, there are only one million today. There is now a university place for every eighteen-year-old who wants one.

But because barely forty percent go on to tertiary education, that leaves a lot of empty chairs in a lot of expensively air-conditioned classrooms. MEXT, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, estimates that around forty-six percent of Japan’s 605 private universities are missing their recruitment targets, and around forty percent are in debt. Small colleges, in particular tandai (two-year colleges), are amalgamating or closing. The word from colleagues at all but the top-level universities is that they are lowering entrance standards in order to attract enough students.

So are we. I work at a low level, private university in central Tokyo and every year my colleagues and I spend six months writing entrance papers, invigilating exams, and interviewing students – in full knowledge that we are going to accept all but the lowest scoring applicants.

In the spring semester, members of the entrance examination committee meet for lunch over complimentary pork cutlet sandwiches and green tea to divide up the English language examination writing. I am always paired with a Japanese colleague and we are given the summer vacation to craft four pieces with ten multiple-choice questions and four dialogues with fill-in-the-gap spaces.

I write my sections that same afternoon. I go through the English red top newspapers, choose a simple issue of the day and then write a piece about it. One year I chose computer addiction among young people. The next, how a poor teenage diet can lead to health problems in later life. My favourite, however, was a piece I wrote the same year Pirates of the Caribbean was released. I called it, ‘How much do we really know about pirates?’ I had fun with facts about cargoes (tea, not alcohol, was the more lucrative of imports, so Jack Sparrow should have been out of his mind on caffeine, not rum) and pirate law (most crews were democracies, so Barbosa was in no position to give orders).

Since the summer vacations are coming up, my dialogues usually revolve around customs desks or ticket counters. “Did you pack your bag yourself? What is the purpose of your visit to our country?” And the trick question: “You’re not carrying any prohibited items, are you?” To which most Japanese will answer, “Yes”, as in, “Yes, I’m not”.

During the autumn semester these exam pieces are returned to us four times – from the committee, the editors, the typesetters and the printers – before the papers are printed and locked away. Much later, the examinations are collated and published in book form for future applicants to buy and study.

In the five months before the start of the new academic year in April, my colleagues and I will spend at least half of our Saturdays overseeing the entrance examinations in the mornings and interviewing students in the afternoons. We get a free boxed lunch in between. Often we outnumber the applicants. One Saturday last year, twenty-nine lecturers were called in to test seventeen high school students. Administration shared them out. A colleague and myself invigilated a thirty-minute entrance examination for three students, in a room that seats 144.

The word from colleagues at all but the top-level universities is that they are lowering entrance standards in order to attract enough students.

Since the first appearance of swine flu in 2009, it has been mandatory for lecturers and students to wear surgical masks during examination season, because it coincides with flu season. Bottles of spray disinfectant are available at the door to every classroom.

This morning, the students sit several papers, including English and Japanese. During the tests, I am handed the students’ application cards and told to check their identities.

“But I can’t see their faces,” I point out.

“Try looking at their eyes,” I am told.

Since most Japanese have brown eyes, I try to match students with glasses, hairstyles and school uniforms. But when I look down at their seated figures, my mask rides up over my eyes. I pull it back into place, but then the mask channels my exhaled breath upwards into my glasses, which steam up. I am supposed to remain vigilant at all times, but I overheat. So do some of the students who push their masks down under their chins. A few fall asleep.

After lunch, the interviews begin. It is obvious those who have been drilled by their high school teachers. Some have been told to smile at the foreigner, and one student attempts to do this continuously while speaking. They have been given different messages about eye contact. Some, generally the boys, blink, swallow and stare into the distance refusing to look us in the face, as is the Japanese custom. The girls glance and then look away shyly, except for the smiler who drills holes in my head with her eyes.

Next, the students read a short passage on music in English and answer two questions. It immediately becomes obvious they cannot understand the passage at all, and can’t answer either of the questions. I take my mask off so they can watch my lips moving, but it doesn’t help.

I give up and resort to a verbal game of battleships and cruisers, trying to hit on a question for which they have a prepared answer. “My favourite singer” and “Why I like animals” (“because they are cute”) hit their targets. I look back at their shibo douki and ask them what they want to do in the future. It used to be hotel staff and flight attendants, but since Japan Airlines went into the red and the strong Yen emptied the international hotels of foreign tourists, they are going for their second tier choice: English-language teachers.

After twenty minutes the students stand and thank us for an interview which has cost them either ¥10,000 (AUD$104) or ¥30,000 (AUD$313), depending on whether they also took the morning exam. They bow, say “Shitsurei shimashita” (“I’m sorry for having disturbed you”), walk backwards through the door, and are gone.

At the end of the day, the Japanese lecturer turns to me and says, “They don’t speak English at all, do they?”.

I admit the standard is appallingly low for students who have spent six years studying English in compulsory education.

“It is our education system,” admits the lecturer.

These students are the early products of a revolution in language teaching, when grammar translation was ditched in favour of more oral communication classes. Unfortunately, the majority of the current generation of Japanese English-language teachers were trained using the old method. Many know the meanings of English words, but cannot pronounce them. Consequently, they are unwilling to teach to the new system. To combat this, the education ministry decreed that from 2013 all English-language classes had to be taught in English. But my Japanese university colleagues think this is a poor joke.

“Who the hell do they think is able to do that?” they cry.

The Japanese lecturer and I confer over grades. To be accepted by the university a student needs a minimum score of twenty-four out of thirty, and most of them failed the morning written exams. But we have been informed that, of the 150 who attended today, only a token two or three are expected to fail, so we haggle over our scores until every student is awarded at least twenty-four.

Most Japanese high school students will take entrance tests for three universities. The first will be a long shot at a high level institution, the second will be at a college their homeroom teacher believes best matches their academic level, and the third is a back-up plan in case they fail the other two. We are the third choice.

Before they leave, the students are informed their results will be online within the week. Will they get a place at our university? And more importantly for us, will they want it?

Susan K. Burton was an associate professor for a decade at two Japanese universities. She recently returned to the United Kingdom, where she is currently studying towards her masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

Stories from the Ivory Tower is an online series of creative non-fiction essays that draw their inspiration from academia. These commissions are made possible through the University of Melbourne’s Cultural and Community Relations Advisory Group (CCRAG).

Feature photo by MQNR (used under Creative Commons)