Around this time in stores you will see a variety of snacks and chocolates with cute ema boards 絵馬 (the message boards like you see in a shrine or temple) or omamori お守り (good luck amulets) and places to write messages on them. Why is this? What does it mean? Well, this is for people to write messages of encouragement to exam students! School exams to get into high school and college are notoriously difficult in Japan, and students will go to cram schools, spending many hours studying. What better when you are tired and stressed from studying than snacks and messages from family or friends?
You may see phrases such as:
めざせ合格 mezase goukaku: Aim for success
ガンバレ or がんばれ or 頑張れ ganbare: Do your best/Good luck
祈願 kigan: prayer
合格祈願 goukaku kigan: prayer for success
受験生 jukensei: test-taking student
試験 shiken: exam(s)
Especially popular are kitkats キットカット because it sounds like “you will surely win!” which has been a popular campaign for them in Japan. Many packages will also have sakura (cherry blossoms) decorating them as well; sakura bloom in April, when students will (passed their exams) be entering new institutions of learning, so it is sort of a symbol of hope and success.
Some packages will even be a little funny, with images of strength or someone studying hard. The picture below has Gari勉Zap, 勉 ben is the character for endeavor or to make a great effort (also seen in the word 勉強 benkyou meaning study); this candy bar playfully means to increase your study ability. I bought this for my friend working on her thesis back in the US. The bread I bought from my university conbini, it has the kanji単位 tan’i for “credit” or “unit,” as in to pass semester exams and earn credits towards graduation.
Students eat it to feel encouraged to study for end of the year exams and gain school credit towards graduation.
So if you know someone taking exams, why don’t you buy one of these snacks and write them an encouraging message?