How I got a Certificate in Common Sense

June 6, 2007 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — When I picked up my son Yataro last spring after his ski camp, the train station was abuzz with children talking about who got which certificate. “Yataro didn’t get the bronze pin,” one girl ran up to inform me.

I was taken aback by the competitive vibes coming from the 8-year-olds. In retrospect, I realize that I shouldn’t have been. I myself had just taken a class at Japan’s largest ski resort only to find the entire session spent on one slope practicing the short turn because my other classmates needed to perfect the maneuver to win a high level ski badge.

Passing a test to earn a ranking is half of the joy of learning in Japan. Certification tests for nonprofessional purposes, as opposed to licenses to be doctors or lawyers, have long existed in traditional fields like martial arts, tea ceremony and flower arrangement.

But these days, even the most obscure hobbies have their own ranking systems, usually administered by organizations backed by related businesses.

Enthusiasts say whether it’s jumping rope or memorizing movie trivia, testing encourages the pursuit of excellence. Certifications also provide a way for status-conscious Japanese to size each other up, as well as a chance for a subtle boast in a culture that demands modesty.

One mother at a school luncheon last year garnered much respect from the table when she announced she had a diploma for completing a class on gel nails, the latest in nail enhancement technology. She has no plans to work as a manicurist.

About 4,000 people take the Timetable Reading Certification Test every year, answering questions that would put the most avid train-spotters to shame. For example: “Which of the following four train stations does not sell boxed lunches featuring the cartoon character Ampanman?”

This month, Japanese will be able to rate their expertise on one of their favorite tourist destinations in the first Hawaiian Hula History and Culture Certification Test. To gauge its difficulty, I asked long time hula student Veronica Ohara to take the sample test on the organizers’ Web site. Stumped by questions like “What is kika kila?,” she scored only five out of 10. (Answer: Hawaiian steel guitar.)

I tested my own level of sophistication on a sample test offered by the Japan Common Sense Testing Organization and received the computer-generated reply: “Wonderful! A perfect score. Keep it up and take the Common Sense Exam.” I was on shaky ground when identifying the stages of life as defined by Confucius as well as the medical procedure to take after swallowing kerosene. Maybe I should take one of organization’s seminars or buy one of its drill books full of questions from past exams.

Certification has become a business of its own, with most testing organizations offering classes and study guides and collecting exam fees. The Film Certification Test, where movie buffs identify quotes, box-office rankings and other facts, charges exam fees ranging from 4,000 to 4,900 yen ($33 to $40) and sells five drill books starting from 1,365 yen ($11). A gel nail course can cost around 190,000 yen ($1,600).

While most hobby certifications have only the weight of a merit badge, there are signs of people starting to look to qualifications for professional appeal in an increasingly competitive job market. At the grocery counter I was recently advised by a “vegetable sommelier” on which tomatoes to buy.

The current issue of the biannual magazine “Kasegeru Shikaku” or “Money-Making Qualifications,” published by the employment information and publishing company Recruit, lists and describes 525 certifications. One of the most popular TV drama series earlier this year chronicled the feats of a fictional female temp worker showing off her 26 qualifications ranging from expertise in elevator maintenance to blowfish preparation.

Certification mania has trickled down to children, too, as ambitious parents sign them up from one test to the next.

A routine introductory greeting at my son’s swim class is “What color hat are you?” to discern the level, differentiated by cap color, of any newcomer. On test days, I always see a few children in tears and their disappointed parents. .

Last year, some 438,000 elementary school students took the popular Kanji, or Japanese written character, Certification Exam, competing for ranks in a test of reading, writing and stroke order of characters.

Yataro usually greets his failures with a shrug of the shoulders but no accompanying surge of motivation. I am not a good example for him because my paltry list of qualifications includes only a driver’s license, an English proficiency certificate and a flower arrangement qualification. .

Am I a bad parent? I could always find out by taking the Child Rearing Certification Exam.