I grew up in Japan learning that a checkmark next to my answer on the test paper meant the answer was wrong. It was so obvious to me that I had never given it much thought. I was horrified when I saw my son’s answer sheet covered in red check marks when he first started school in the United States.
It turned out that he did not do bad on his test. It was new and quite interesting to me to find out that a checkmark is actually used to indicate affirmation in the United States. As a matter of fact, a checkmark means correct in most parts of the world except for a few cultures including Japanese.
However, as I gather information from my friends from various cultural backgrounds and refer the internet discussions on the topic, it seems that there is no “international standard” for how to mark correct and incorrect answers. The checkmark as an error mark finds a usage in Korea, Sweden and Finland. According to a French friend she got crosses (X) on correct answers and circles on mistakes in her country.
Here are some examples of symbols the Japanese use to indicate right and wrong that might be different from how your teacher marked your exam papers.
Circling an answer is always used to signify correct, satisfactory, or good in Japan. While to many cultures outside of Japan it means teachers trying to draw attention to the answer that was incorrect.
There are several possible origins of marking a circle symbol as an affirmation. One is that because a circular form is the symbol of perfection and enlightenment in Buddhism, people started to use it to indicate correctness.
An X means an incorrect or poor answer in Japan in the similar manner as most people in the U.S. are familiar with. However, there is a considerable difference in the usage of X as an indicator. In the U.S., generally you put an X in the space to select the option such as a ballot paper to show who you want to vote for in the election. This is not a case in Japan. If you draw an X next to a person’s name in Japan, it could be received very negatively indicating that you were denying the person. Instead we would put a circle.
A checkmark performs much the same role as a cross symbol in Japan. Teachers tend to use a checkmark rather than a cross when marking an incorrect answer because it is faster to write with a pen. If your teacher gives back your test paper filled with checkmarks in Japanese school, don’t get excited. It only suggests that you made a lot of mistakes in your test.
The triangle symbol may be the most confusing to most people outside of Japan. It indicates "not correct but not completely incorrect". Teachers most commonly mark the triangle in math and science when your equation is correct but you make a mistake in calculation so that the answer is wrong. You usually receive a partial credit with a triangle.
Although there are various theories about the origin of the triangle symbol, there should be certain connection to the Japan’s process-oriented culture which tends to focus on the process as much on the outcome.
Kids in Japan feel on top of the world when the teacher awards them with a big flower circle. It is the best mark you can receive at school, synonymous with a gold star or sticker in the U.S. The flower circle is drawn as a spiral surrounded by flower petals. Typically a bigger flower circle means more excellence.
You might have never seen these unique Japanese marking symbols, but who knows? Looking the way people are captivated with emojis these days, I would not be surprised if flower circles and triangles would be big hits in the U.S.!