The National Center's University Entrance Exams were held 17-18 January 2009. Just over 540,000 university prospects took the exams, a little more than last year. If anything, it indicates that university enrollment in Japan has crested a peak but has not yet begun to decline (even though drastic decline had been predicted to begin from the year 2007).
It's important to remember that (1) for the universities that participate in the center exam program, admissions are still somewhat competitive (about 1 in 3 exam takers will get a place at the university of their choosing) and (2) in any given year about 20% of the applicant pool is comprised of 'non-students'--that is, 'ronin' who are sitting out from higher education for one or more years in hopes of doing well enough on the entrance exams to get into a prestigious institution. Universities and colleges that use the Center Test typically hold their own entrance exams the following month (in February).
At some high-ranked universities, students who make the 'cut off' on the Center Test scores are then asked to start from 'zero' and compete against all the other people taking a particular university's own exam. Other universities, typically lower-ranked ones, average or otherwise combine the Center Test score with their own exams' scores in order to determine admissions for their institutions and/or specific programs.
Excerpt from the Kyodo News article found at JT:
>>College entrance exams kick off nationwide
>>This year, a record 797 schools took part in the annual rite as 20 more schools, including two- and four-year colleges, joined in. The exams are coordinated by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, an independent administrative agency.
A total of 543,981 students signed up for the tests, up 596 from the previous year, with high school students due to graduate in March accounting for a record 79.3 percent of all applicants.<< href="http://www.dnc.ac.jp/">National Center's own website (the link below is to particular pages with data on this year's test population).
For more analysis of the exams and their significance, see this informative Japan Times article:
>>The tough competition used to be known as "examination hell" as applicants crammed with the goal of getting into the best schools to ensure the best career opportunities.
Now that the population is in decline, the competition is changing. Universities are struggling to survive and they need to ensure they enroll enough students to do so.
Following are some facts about the university entrance exams:<<