Critics of the Japanese approach to education never tire of pointing to the high suicide rate among teenagers who buckle under the pressures of the country's notorious examinations system. But in fact the suicide rate for 15 to 24-year-olds in Japan, which was among the highest in the world 30 years ago, has fallen to approximately half that for the United States, Australia and Finland.
World Health Organisation statistics show that just under sevenin every 100,000 Japanese youths took their own lives in 1990 compared with 13 Americans, 15 Australians and 31 Finns (the Finnish rate has since dropped and is now only slightly ahead of the Australian figure).
Furthermore, Japanese police statistics indicate that only 5.5 per cent of the 524 under-21-year-olds who committed suicide in 1992 - 29 students - killed themselves because of exam pressures.
The myth of the suicidally-inclined Japanese teenager was exposed by Kangmin Zeng, a Stanford University researcher, at last week's AERA conference. His paper, entitled "A reassessment of the causal effects of the 'exam hell' on Japanese youth suicide", reveals that the suicide rate has dropped even though the competition for university places became much fiercer during the 1980s (there were 9.4 applications for every place in 1990 compared with 6.4 in 1980).
Zeng points out that the youth suicide rate in Taiwan is also low even though its university entrance exams are even more competitive than Japan's. Concern about the link between school pressures and suicide, he says, dates back to at least 1922 when an elementary teacher committed seppuku (self-disembowelment) because his pupils had done badly in a test.
The media continued to focus on the problem in the 1970s and 1980s even though the suicide rate was declining sharply, and Zeng says that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development also bolstered the outdated stereotype in a 1970 report on Japanese education. It concluded: "The pressure on the individual student becomes so great that it probably is even reflected in the suicide curve, which has a life-cycle maximum for both sexes at the age of university examinations and an annual maximum for boys in the month the results of the examinations are known."
Zeng disputes this: "The suicide rates for February and March, when exam pressures are greatest and failures become known, are not high," he said. "Furthermore, the question of seasons is complicated by the fact that adult suicides in Japan, as in many countries of the northern hemisphere, also peak in April and May."
The Children's Defence Fund last week reported that 1,460 of America's 10 to 19-year-olds shot themselves in 1993. Gunshot is now the second-leading cause of death - after accidents - among young Americans. In 1993 there was one shooting death every 92 minutes among the 10 to 19 age group.