In 1996, 111,989 students left state and private high schools, sending the rate to a record 2.5 per cent. This is an average of one student per class and a 0.4 percentage point rise over the previous year.
The survey was conducted among the nation's 5,479 high schools.
Japanese law does not require students to attend or graduate from high school after they reach 16. However, intense social pressure does make non-attendance difficult. The same pressure might also account for the fact that Japan's drop-out rate, though rising, is still low compared to rates in the West.
Nonetheless, the government is worried by the rise and believes improvements in junior high-school counselling, high-school curricula, and educational administration are badly needed.
"Lamentably, an increasing number of students are entering high schools without goals and leaving after finding out that they not suited for school, " said an education ministry spokesman. "Counselling should be provided before and after students enter high schools."
Just over 40 per cent of the high schools which took part in the survey said students left because of a "change in career goals". Of those students, 26.4 per cent left to go to jobs and 7 per cent to different schools.
The survey of the country's 5,479 high schools hints at the remarkable sway peer pressure has over nearly all of Japan's teenagers. Most drop-outs said they enrolled in high school "because everyone else did".
A follow-up report showed that of those who left in 1993, 28.1 per cent said that despite leaving they thought going on to high school would have been good for their career prospects, 24.8 per cent were encouraged to leave by family members, and 19.7 per cent had "no particular reason".
The survey also revealed a wide perception gap between schools and students who leave them. Some 52 per cent of high schools believe that students quit because of a "change in objectives". Only 21 per cent believe that their students left school because they were "maladjusted to school life and academics". In fact, 37 per cent of those who left said that they had trouble adjusting to school life.