I really didn’t expect to see such a dark scene in a Sazae-san comic strip. But there it was.
Sazae-san notices a sad student walking out of the school grounds where exam results were posted. Sazae-san is so concerned that she follows the student, and is relieved to see her return safely home. What was Sazae-san worrying about? Maybe this young woman would be so distraught she would try to do harm to herself.
In Japan, these exam results determine whether you get into the school you want: Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Keio University or Waseda University, for example. Graduating from those prestigious schools will likely determine your short-term career, as well as your long-term life prospects. Parents, grandparents and the children themselves realize that a lot is riding on their chances to pass these university exams.
Japan has always had relatively high suicide rates, as you can see in the chart below. These days, Japan’s rate is about 60% higher than the global average. Back when Machiko Hasegawa was penning these Sazae-san cartoons, the suicide rate was significantly higher.
So suicides were a concern of the day. And while it is unclear whether there was a strong correlation between suicides and young people under tremendous academic pressure, it certainly was in the cultural conversation. Here are two more cartoon strips from the book The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, illustrating the fear that one student has just trying to learn whether he passed a university exam or not, and another showing the level of deception that Sazae-san’s brother Katsuo is willing to go to in order to explain how he is doing in school to his father.