The suicide schools

East Asia's emphasis on education has a tragic cost

Tammy Cho

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

25 October 2016

The dark tragedy of youth suicide hangs over Korean and Japanese schools, writes Monsoon subeditor Tammy Cho.

The deafening chime of the school bell song plays over the PA systems. Students shuffle into classrooms – their young shoulders bearing the weight of their pending future, fearful of the merciless bullying surrounding them, and their dreary minds about to cram and compete.

This is the tormenting dread and anxiety students in Japan and South Korea feel every morning. And now, youth suicide haunts the corridors of the two nations’ schools.

South Korea and Japan place great value in the academic achievement of their youth. However, the education system and pressures at home are toxic for students, who often spend 9 to 15 hours studying, 6 or 7 days a week. Society programs students to overwork – their testing results will dictate their future relationships, marriage, financial stability, happiness, and they must perform better than the girl next door.

In Korea, students head to private tutoring institutions, hagwon, after school. Many hagwon stay open past their 10pm curfew and students study until midnight. Professors say that Korean students typically study 14 hours a day.

The pressure pushes students over the brink. The leading cause of death for Korean youth aged 9 to 24 in 2014 was ‘intentional self-harm’. A 16-year-old Korean boy who set himself alight on a public street left a note attributing his sense of helplessness to bad grades and feeling that he had disappointed his parents. Four student suicides in 2011 at the prestigious Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology were attributed to immense academic pressure.

Similarly, in Japan, suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 15-24. Suicide of Japanese youth under the age of 18 is most concentrated around the end of the spring and summer school holidays when students return to the suffocating school environment.


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Memorisation and cramming techniques are the primary focus of Korean and Japanese learning. The focus on conformity gives rise to collective bullying – large groups abuse single victims, and bully-gangs recruit ‘outsiders’ to hold subservient roles. The BBC reported that nearly 90 per cent of the children surveyed by Japan’s Cabinet Office had both bullied and been bullied. A boy as young as 13 endured months of physical abuse, was forced to commit theft, had his room vandalised, and was forced to eat dead bees shortly before he decided to leap to his death. There are similar instances in South Korea, such as the story of a 13-year-old boy who jumped from his apartment building after suffering from persistent torment.

Suicide is common in the two countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) health statistics, South Korea has the highest suicide rate amongst OECD members with 29.1 suicides per 100,000 people. Japan is fourth of the OECD states with 19.1. Comparatively, Australia and the United States have less than half the suicide rate of South Korea with 11.4 and 13.0, respectively.

The pervasively high rate of suicide across age groups means that people see taking one’s own life as a normal response to social pressures and economic shortfalls. Media coverage on youth and celebrity suicide cases often fail to explain the surrounding mental illnesses and lead to greater spikes in the number of people choosing to end their lives.

Suicide is commonly featured ­– even romanticised – in Korean and Japanese pop culture. Some examples include the preoccupation with death and romanticisation of female mental illness in novels such as Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and depictions of self-harm as a sign of honour or love in Korean TV soap operas. The high rate of Internet access and rise of online suicide forums has also increased access to information on how to commit suicide. There are websites that share tips on people’s ‘right to know some painless ways of suicide’ (translated). Other websites show young teenagers asking for assistance in taking their own life or users forming suicide pacts.

Meanwhile, there is still little understanding and high stigma associated with mental health and its treatment in Japan and Korea. Many people view depression as a sign of weakness. People seeking psychological or psychiatric help are afraid of others finding out. Parents continue to place immense pressure on their own children without considering that they may be struggling with extreme stress or depression. Feeling isolated from peers also pushes youth over the edge. Increased understanding of the harmful affects of ruthless competition on young minds, as well as better access to mental healthcare must be implemented.

The high rates of youth suicide show that Japan and Korea’s high emphasis on education rates has come at a tragic cost. The chime of the school bell song should no longer drown out cries for help nor defeat the happiness of the two nations’ students.


In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.

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