In America when you go from eighth grade to a freshman in high school you just enroll and go to the school which is closest to your neighborhood. In Japan, the system is not even close. Junior high school kids (mind you only 14 years old) must take huge national proficiency tests to get a "rating" or score which will determine the type of academic high school's they can choose. Once they know their scores they can choose from a list of high schools. If they do bad on the initial test they have two more tries to score well and get into the high school they (or their parents) want. Some of my students with go off to high schools in other parts of the country, in different prefectures. Some will just bus across Hiroshima prefecture, or even take a two hour bus/train ride into the city everyday just to go to an academic or sports based high school. For the ones who can't afford such luxuries they will stay stuck in Sera and go to one of two medium academic schools. However, Sera has the best long distance running team in Japan, so this is a bonus for those who stay because Sera High stays well funded.
While others still won't even go to a high school, something unprecedented to Americans who are required by law to attend 12 years of public schooling, but since high schools in Japan are mainly private the test to get in is one of the most stressful times in a young Japanese persons life. The next real challenge comes for those who decide to go on to college and have to take the college entrance exams, a test so rigorous that it has garnered the nickname of the "hell exam" and which is the main determining factor of a young persons future. If you pass you can get into a good college and become what you have dreamed of being since you were a child, but if you fail, you get stuck in the hell of the mediocre and are forced to join society -thus the slew of everyday-men, i.e. salary men and flight attendants, the top two most popular jobs in Japan. Not because they pay well or are in anyway exciting, but because they are accessible to the everyday people.
I personally don't think its fair to base your entire future on a test score. This is something I miss about American culture -every American has a chance to make their dreams come true and do what makes them truly happy, but in Japan, you do what is expected- and if you don't make the cut, well, then society places you at the bottom of the barrel so that those who work insanely hard can enjoy their time at the top -only until the massive stress of having to perform causes them to jump in front of a train. It's not a perfect system, and to many of my Japanese friends the trick is to outsource and find better jobs in foreign industry and exchange. Yet many Japanese don't have these options, or knowledge about the options, and get stuck in low paying office jobs stuck under florescent lights ultimately wanting to pull a "Joe vs. the Volcano" all over again. Welcome to Japan!
I just wish my students better luck in their futures! And I hope by teaching a young generation of Japanese English, they will hopefully have more options for their future, including new exciting international ventures.