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  • Writer's pictureKomaba Times

Todaisei: The Weight of the Utokyo Brand


The Weight of the Todai-sei Status. Image by, edited by author.

UTokyo has been a topic popular in media recently. Whether it be about the eccentricities of UTokyo students or the myths surrounding the university, media outlets paint an image of the University of Tokyo, one which does not necessarily apply to all attending students. It's well-known that some students hesitate to introduce themselves by saying, "I'm a todai-sei (UTokyo student)." They say, "一応、東大生です (ichiou todai-sei desu)" in Japanese. The “東大生です” portion is simply, I am a UTokyo student, but there is no direct English translation of "一応" that would fit into this context. The closest translation would be "technically" or "in theory." This shows that using "ichiou” (with all of its connotations intact) is a phenomenon nearly exclusive to Japan.

Describing the meaning of this phrase as clearly and simply as possible, it creates a sense of slight reluctance at revealing that the person saying he or she is actually a UTokyo student. It is used similarly to a tentative “well…” or hesitant “uhm…” before revealing information that one would not necessarily want to share with others. Why are they reluctant to say which university they are from? It is because of the image the media and past generations have created regarding The University of Tokyo. The stereotypes shown in the media are not what should be expected of all UTokyo students, but it is hard to break these images.

The University of Tokyo has been thought of as “elite” for a long time. For example, people say "if you enter UTokyo, you will definitely have a bright future. You won't have any hard time finding a job, and you will be financially secure for the rest of your life." UTokyo has been described as an internationally top-tier university. The social status received from attending The University of Tokyo is invaluable. Most Japanese companies that are hiring put a large emphasis on which university the applicants are from; therefore, it is natural to assume that UTokyo students are guaranteed bright futures.

However, what is the reality that UTokyo students face? Many of them don’t believe that they deserve this image in which they are put on an unreasonable, nearly un-obtainable pedestal. It is true that they must have made tremendous efforts to enter UTokyo, but once accepted, studying at a Japanese university is often described as “four years of spring vacation.” Therefore, UTokyo students do not believe that the image of an elite university student is appropriate for them. They are afraid of being the objects of envy or not being able to live up to such an image. In order to prevent this situation, they add "ichiou" when they say "I'm a todai-sei", and imply "I'm not as smart as you think" beforehand. There are two main reasons why they do not want the image of a “smart” UTokyo student to be applied to them.

First of all, the entrance exam focuses on memorization skills and solving as many problems in as little time as possible. Many believe UTokyo students memorize well and know many things, but, in reality, some of us are not as knowledgeable in fields other than the ones we were required to study. It is commendable for the students to have passed the exam, but many of us do want it viewed as something that can be achieved by diligent studying and careful preparation. Secondly, many of the UTokyo students on television shows or other forms of media are portrayed as being geniuses. They are the ones who fit the cookie-cutter image of UTokyo prodigies while the rest of us attribute our acceptance to the university to hours upon hours of studying.

While many UTokyo students might seem stuck-up when hesitating to reveal the name of their university, there are a multitude of emotions behind this action. Perhaps it is time for our generation to break the stereotype of a “todai-sei” and to show the diversity and rich culminations of cultures that our university has to offer to Japan and the world.

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