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High death rate is a media myth


"Examination hell", suicide and Japan seem inseparable in many minds. However, the high incidence of suicides among Japanese students is a myth.

Young Japanese may be under intense pressure to pass university entrance exams but youth suicide rates are no higher than many other countries. Corporate managers or the unemployed are much more likely to take their own lives than schoolchildren. School problems only accounted for 0.8 per cent of total suicides in Japan in 1997, according to the National Police Agency.

The reason for such an established myth lies with distortions in media coverage on "exam hell" in Japan; particularly suicides resulting from exam pressures. Bullying, too, is also overhyped, say educationists.

"Until several years ago the mass media played up suicides by elementary and middle school students during the exam period every year," says Osamu Nakano a professor of sociology at Tokyo's Hosei University.

"They described them as 'victims' of the exam system. However, statistics show that the number of suicides by elementary and middle-school children has remained unchanged for years."

As Professor Nakano points out, the media tends to look for a simple explanation such as exam nerves where in fact many such suicides can be put down to a "lack of emotional intelligence" which the present education system fosters.

Responsible for suicides or not, it is generally accepted that Japan's exam system is extraordinarily demanding and needs to change.

The new government has issued draft proposals which include setting up admissions offices in universities, extending the admission period and reforming the National Centre Test for University Admissions.

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