This post explains Japanese words and idioms about exams that are relatable for students!
文武両道 (ぶんぶりょうどう, bunbu ryoudou)
文武両道 (ぶんぶりょうどう) means “the spirit of pursuing excellence in both sports and academics”. For instance, if you make team captain of a sports club while scoring great marks in school, you achieve this spirit.
The captain of the soccer club scored the best on the school exams; he achieves 文武両道.
ヤマを張る (やまをはる, yama o haru)
ヤマを張(は)る (yama o haru) is a Japanese idiom that means “make a guess/guestimate”. In particular, it is often used when you guestimate the questions/topics/subjects you will be asked in an exam, and focus on studying them. For instance, if you have a Japanese exam tomorrow, you may focus on studying keigo only, hoping that there will be many keigo-related questions. Some people are audacious enough to take a hit-or-miss strategy and study only what they guess will be asked in the exam while completely ignoring the other subjects.
In fact, ヤマを張る is also written as “山を張る”, where 山 means “mountain”. One of the theories of the origin has it that this idiom refers to how miners used to “strike gold” in the old days. There is also another related word, “山勘 (やまかん)”, which means “a random guess” and sounds more random and less reliable than just 勘 (かん), meaning “guess/intuition”. When you make a right guess, you can say “ヤマ/山勘/勘が当(あ)たった” and when you make a wrong one, that is “ヤマ/山勘/勘が外(はず)れた”.
明日 (あした) 、日本語の試験(しけん)があるけど、時間(じかん)がないから ヤマを張って敬語(けいご)だけ勉強 (べんきょう)しよう。
I have a Japanese exam tomorrow, but I don’t have much time left so I’ll guestimate the questions and study keigo only.
I made the right guess and could get good marks
一夜漬け (いちやづけ, ichiya zuke)
一夜漬け (ichiya zuke) literally means “a one-night soak”, and figuratively “cram for a test in only one night”. In other words, it is an act of soaking up knowledge from scratch only the night before the exam. As you’d know, a myriad of lazy students can’t be bothered to study during the exam preparation period, and end up burning the midnight oil to do 一夜漬け at the last minute. To make the “one-night soak” work, many of them also do ヤマを張(は)る (see above).
You can easily forget what you have memorised by cramming in only one night before an exam.
徹夜 (てつや, tetsuya) and オール (“all”)
徹夜 (testuya) consists of two kanji 徹 (てつ) meaning “penetrate, throughout” and 夜 (や) meaning “night”. Therefore, 徹夜(+する) means “to stay up all night”, and a lot of students do 徹夜 to prepare for their exams. If you do 徹夜 two days in a row, that’s “二徹 (にてつ)”.
Instead of 徹夜, some young people (teenagers~early 20s) also say “オール(する)”, where オール comes from “all” in English.
The day after I pulled an all-nighter, I slept for 20 h
Because I stayed up all night at karaoke, I’m so sleepy.
* Karaoke boxes in Japan are usually open until early morning (e.g. 5 am). Most of them also have all-you-can-drink systems, so you can do “オール” while being plastered with heaps of drinks.
語呂合わせ (ごろあわせ, goro awase)
語呂合わせ (goro awase) means “make a pun to memorise something”. Here is one of the most famous examples of 語呂合わせ:
“Let’s build a good country, Kamakura shogunate”.
Many Japanese people memorise this sentence to remember that the Kamakura shogunate was established in 1192; here, いい国(くに) makes a pun with 1192 (いち いち く に).
Many people memorise years of historical events by making puns.
* In fact, it is very common for Japanese people to employ 語呂合わせ to memorise years for a history exam, but some people also make this kind of puns to memorise new words in English or old-Japanese. (e.g. “deny” は 「〜でない」と否定(ひてい)する). There are also famous puns to memorise a square root of numbers (shown below) if you’re interested.
√2 ≒ 一夜(ひとよ)一夜(ひとよ)に人(ひと)見(み)ごろ
“One night and another night, now it’s a good timing to see people” (Actually it doesn’t make much sense)
This is a pun to memorise √2 ≒ 1.41421356
ひ(1) よ(4) ひ(1) よ(4) に(2) ひ(1) み(3) ご(5) ろ(6)
ひとつ よん ひとつ よん に ひとつ みっつ ご ろく
√3 ≒ 人(ひと)並(な)みに奢(おご)れや
“Pay for others as much as other people normally do”
Thids is a pun to memorise √3 ≒ 1.7320508
ひ (1) な( 7) み(3) に(2) お (0) ご (5) れ(0) や (8)
ひとつ なな みっつ に オウ(O) ご 零（れい） やっつ
√5 ≒ 富士山麓（ふじさんろく）オウム鳴（な）く
“At the foot of Mt Fuji, a parrot sings”
This is a pun to memorise √5 ≒ 2.2360679
ふ (2) じ (2) さん (3) ろく (6) オウ (0) む (6) な (7) く (9)
ふたつ 二 さん ろく オウ(O) むっつ なな く
Other Relevant School Vocab
- 学(まな)ぶ or 勉強(べんきょう)する: study
- 習(なら)う: learn, be taught
- 宿題(しゅくだい): homework
- 課題(かだい): assignment
- 独学(どくがく): study on my own (without being taught by someone)
- 自習(じしゅう): study/review by myself (to prepare for exams, etc.)
- テスト/試験(しけん): test/exam
- 満点(まんてん): full marks
- 暗記 (あんき): memorise
- 丸暗記（まるあんき）: memorise something without understanding it very much
- 抜(ぬ)き打(う)ちテスト: “a surprise test”
“I’m giving you a surprise test now”, I said, which immediately prompted a number of students to scream.