Photo/IllutrationStaffers distribute test papers to applicants for the National Center Test for University Admissions in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on Jan. 18. (The Asahi Shimbun)

The National Center Test for University Admissions, a two-day standardized university entrance test, which more than 400,000 applicants have taken annually since its introduction in 1990, is being discontinued after this year.

The final test under the present system starts on Jan. 18.

Around this season, Yushima Tenmangu in Tokyo's Yushima district teems with applicants who write their hopes and prayers for success on votive tablets called "ema" and offer them to the "god of learning" enshrined there.

One ema declared, "I'm going to score 90 percent on the Center Test." Another pleaded, "Please let me do my very best."

But one supplicant wrote a wrong kanji on the ema. Not that it was any of my business, but I did worry a bit about this youngster's academic prowess.

In the early years of the Center Test, the audio equipment used in the English listening comprehension test kept malfunctioning, producing unintelligible noises to the dismay of many test-takers.

One year, 3,000 applicants were issued wrong booklets in geography, history and other subjects.

And there were times when "unique" questions made news headlines.

In 1995, a question in contemporary social studies was about this then-popular energy drink ad copy: "24-jikan tatakae masuka" (Can you fight round-the-clock?)

In recent years, any offbeat questions would immediately go viral on social media.

Last year, for example, a question in the classic Japanese literature test dealt with a Muromachi Period (1336-1573) work titled "Tamamizu Monogatari" (The Tale of Tamamizu), a fantasy about a fox that falls in love with a beautiful princess and transforms itself into her lady-in-waiting.

Social media went wild over this "cross-species pure love."

In retrospect, the Center Test did meet the needs of the times, when the seemingly unstoppable growth in the number of university applicants was pushing the universities close to a breaking point.

But as the nation's birthrate began declining inexorably amid globalization, the Center Test's incompatibility with society's needs became increasingly evident.

But even after the government decided to introduce a new test system, the education minister scandalized the public by his comment that appeared to accept disparities in education based on financial standing.

A poem by Yoichiro Araki goes to the effect, "The pale blue of the winter sky represents my lack of confidence as a Center Test candidate."

The imagery skillfully captures the candidate's uncertainty and anxiety before the test.

Every time the university entrance test system changes, students are invariably thrown into confusion.

An ema at Yushima Tenmangu reads, "May this test open a bright future for me."

I pray that everyone will perform to the max and be rewarded for their hard work.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 18

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.