Which is harder: getting into a Japanese university or getting into the kingdom of God?

school girl looks up during an exam

Photo courtesy of OMF International

I have a friend here in Japan who is currently studying towards her university entrance exams. The pressure on her is visible. And it’s crazy.

University entrance works differently in Japan than in the UK. You do have different subjects that you study for and you have to pass exams for those in order to pass school. But to get into a university you have to take an exam specifically for that university―if you mess up on the day of that exam (or if you can’t make it for whatever reason) then that’s it, you’re not getting in.

I know that exams in any country result in pressure and stress. But seriously, Japan feels like a whole other level to the UK.

It’s no secret that the pressure to succeed in Japan can be crazy. It’s one of the reasons for the crazy suicide rate and other social problems such as hikikomori and ‘work death.’

One of the most common words in Japan is ‘ganbaru’ (頑張る) which is almost impossible to translate into English, but roughly means something like ‘do your best.’ So people who are studying for exams are encouraged to ganbaru. And you will often hear people saying ganbaranai-to “I must work hard.” The idea is that if you do mess up on that all-important occasion, then it is almost certainly because you didn’t practice/study/work hard enough in the build up to it.

Now I have nothing against people doing their best. But when you feel like you have to keep pushing yourself even when it’s crushing your body and soul . . . Then you know something’s gone wrong.

The thing is that I feel helpless in the face of this ‘ganbaranai-to’ culture.

Take my friend struggling under the pressure to do well in her exams: I can offer some sympathy and practical help, but I’m very limited since:

  1. The UK entrance system seems much more chilled out than here in Japan.
  2.  I can barely remember my high school Physics lessons (all I recall is that Mr Dugan had one of the world’s most impressive moustaches)
  3. I haven’t yet learned the Japanese necessary to discuss differentiation or thermodynamics.

And even if I could help Yukiko pass her entrance exams . . . What about the rest of Japan? I know the story about starfish on the beach, and sure it’s great to help those you can, but my heart still breaks for the millions of people in Japan broken by the pressure to ‘ganbaru’ to the bitter end.


Luckily I know a dude who is able to help. His name is Jesus.

He knows what that pressure to ‘ganbaru’ is like. He went through His whole live fighting temptation every day, and beating it, to win perfect obedience for us. And when the critical moment came, He didn’t fail. He wrestled through blood, sweat and tears and submitted Himself to betrayal, mockery, false-accusations, humiliation, torture and execution on a cross.

“It is finished”

Done. Passed. 100%

See, as far as I can tell, in Japan you don’t get a second chance. If you fail it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.

Sure you can wait till next year and try again. But the thing is that can simply amplify the pressure to succeed. What if you screw up the second time? Then what excuse do you have?

But here’s the punchline: the good news of Christianity is not that God offers us a second chance, but that He offers us His Son.

Because Jesus doesn’t just sympathise with our weakness―although He most certainly does that―He pays for (or rather He paid for) our failings at the cross.

This why Jesus is able to make promises like,

“Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

To be frank, without the death and resurrection of Jesus, this would be a meaningless claim. But with Jesus being seated at the right hand of God it is a promise that is as sweet and powerful today as it was the day He first spoke it.

And I’ve seen this verse enough in Japan to know that it resounds here loud and clear.

This then is why I’m in Japan as a missionary. I genuinely believe that the only hope for the broken people in Japan is Jesus. That’s why I’m committed to being here for the long-term: so that I can introduce people to Jesus. Jesus the great high priest. Jesus the perfect filial son.


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