Exam success would seem to be about more than just knowing the answers. KS investigates the growing trend of students snacking their way to passing grades.
There is nothing more fascinating for anthropologists than watching a new superstition come into existence. While most people cling to the belief
that science can control this unpredictable world, our superstitions betray that we are not so different from our ancestors painting on caves for success in the hunt. There seems to be a primal human need to believe that our fortunes are not ultimately out of our hands. This month, for young people in Japan, the exam season is an especially scary time. Unsurprisingly, a number of bizarre superstitions have arisen. Among these is the belief that if you eat a snack with a lucky name, then you will be blessed with a good exam.
One of these superstitions has formed around every student’s worst nightmare, failing. An expression that many students use for flunking is ochiru, which literally means ‘to fall.’ While it may seem like a bizarre leap of logic, the koala became a good luck charm as it never falls from trees. This faced students with a dilemma, as the tree-hugging marsupials live many thousands of miles away and eating one of these furry cuties would lead to being ostracized from any humane social group. Fortunately students came up with a solution by consuming the cookie Koala-no-Machi (march of the koalas). So successful is this tenuous connection that there is an exam special package for this treat with the message ‘even when a koala is sleeping, it won’t fall down from its tree.’ A real message of hope to the sleep-deprived test-takers.
While the fear of failing has created some superstitions, others are formed by the desire to succeed. One of the many expressions associated with passing is ‘kitto katsu’, meaning that ‘success is certain’. Naturally when the Kit Kats arrived in Japan, students noticed the similarity between the lucky words and the name of this wafer-filled chocolate. As a result, sales for this treat always peak in the months before exam season. A similar explanation accounts for the popularity of katsu-kare (fried pork cutlet curry). Even though the katsu in katsu-kare comes from a different linguistic root, the homophone is enough to make this dish a popular lunch for students with early evening exams. A similar logic also applies to the Happy Turn (Written happe tan in Japanese), with students hoping for a ‘happy turn’ in their examination fortunes by eating these rice crackers.
With these commercial successes, canny marketers soon realized that they could boost the sales of virtually anything as long as it seemed to prom-
ise good luck. The first to try this technique was the cheese-flavored corn snack ‘Curl’ (Karu in Japanese). The marketers spotted that its name was just one vowel away from the Japanese word for passing a test, ukaru and rebranded the product as U-karu every year during the exam season. Spotting this emerging trend, the chocolate-wafer snack Toppo joined in, renaming itself Toppa, a word meaning ‘to accomplish an aim’.
While these traditions seem strange, the west has similar oddities such as lucky rabbit feet and four-leaf clovers. It seems that no matter which country you come from, the desire to improve your fortunes by calling on lady luck is still as prevalent today as it was in older days. Perhaps it is one thing that unites us all; the belief that, just maybe, we can have some control over all of this craziness. Even if we do have to stuff our faces with snacks or mutilate bunnies to achieve it ...