This past May, I was a student at a Japanese high school for a day. I was a senior in high school at the time, and visited classes just like the ones I took at home. I spent the day following around my guide and her friends, who practiced their English while I tried to learn a bit of Japanese from them.
Obviously, it was an amazing experience. Between incredible experiences, I'd notice little, troubling things. I asked kids what they liked to do in their free time, but the concept of "free time" is essentially nonexistent. They spent the majority of their time doing homework, but made time for exactly one school club as well. I pressed them for anything that didn't relate to school, but no one had time for activities outside of one school club and homework.
Even though some of the kids I met were quite young, just fourteen-years-olds, they were already panicking about getting into a university. In Japan, they have to take tests just to be admitted into high school. Afterwards, many start worrying about tests they'll have to take to get into a university. Many universities in Japan make their own tests, instead of offering a standardized one, so students will often have to take multiple tests. The majority of kids I befriended had tutors, or went to afterschool programs that prepped kids for tests. Tests that, for some students, were still four years away!
September 1 is the most popular day for suicide in Japan, because it's the day that school starts. Japan has the ninth highest suicide rate in the world, only beaten by countries like Lithuania and Kazakhstan.
It's easy for people to speculate about why the Japanese suicide rate is so high. What's tougher is just asking kids what they think. My guide, two years younger than me, knew of three kids who had killed themselves. I questioned her and her friends about why they thought the suicide rate was so high. At first, they were reluctant to answer, for fear they'd shame their school. Once the first girl started talking though, the rest jumped in.
They suspect the rate is so high because of the immense stress put on students, but also because of Japan's severe bullying problem. The unending workload is enough to drive any teenager crazy, but combine that with bullying, and you've got a deadly cocktail of stress.
In Japanese high schools, conformity is imperative. Kids can be assaulted or mocked for anything, from dyed hair to weight to where they were born. The bullying problem in schools is one that most Americans are familiar with, but it's hard to comprehend it on the Japanese scale.
In the U.S., difference is celebrated. An American child will grow up surrounded by the message that they should embrace their uniqueness, that they're special, that difference is a good thing. In Japanese schools, kids will learn the opposite message. They'll learn that it's best to be like everyone else, because that's safest. Of course, kids are unique: they all choose different overly cute notebooks and backpacks and things. It's not to say that they conform in every way possible, but when it comes to things like hair color, high school, etc., kids just want to be the same. Difference is punished. My host recalled a freshman girl who'd dyed her hair a darker black so that she'd look "more Japanese," and she was bullied mercilessly as soon as her roots grew in. The bullying wasn't just verbal; it often became physical.
The stories of kids being bullied in Japan are endless. A quick Google search will turn up numerous instances of Japanese kids being tormented by their peers. Often, it's for something as trivial as where they were born.
My host and her friends hadn't been targets of this bullying, but they'd seen it firsthand, and it wasn't pretty. Once they'd shared their thoughts, they quickly changed the subject. Of course, talking about horrifically high suicide rates isn't exactly a comfortable lunchtime conversation. I didn't want to make them uncomfortable by bringing up the topic again, but I was left with a lingering question: how does one fix this?
I'm an American. I didn't grow up in Japan, and one day at a Japanese school isn't going to teach me all there is to know about the country. As someone who didn't grow up in that culture, I can't understand it enough to propose a solution. Things that might work in America may well fail in Japan, and vice versa. All I know for sure is this: Japan's education system is a disaster, and if they don't act soon, they're going to lose a generation of kids to crippling stress or suicide.
Additional information gathered from: CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/01/asia/japan-teen-suicides/), Japan Today (http://www.japantoday.com/category/opinions/view/whats-wrong-with-japanese-education), NPR (http://www.npr.org/2014/04/30/308057862/u-s-tests-teens-a-lot-but-worldwide-exam-stakes-are-higher), and Suicide.org (http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-statistics.html).