A funny thing happened on the way to jail for the 19-year-old boy who was arrested Mar. 3 for allegedly cheating on a Kyoto University entrance exam: The media suddenly became all reflective of its coverage and sympathetic of his situation. Some may see this turnaround as a defensive reaction to the public criticism of the press frenzy over the case. Cheating on tests is a problem as old as education, and many of the complaints weren’t really about the quality of the coverage but rather about its lack of perspective. Neuroscientist and media pundit Kenichiro Mogi called Asahi Shimbun “rubbish” for its treatment of the story, but mainly because Japan’s newspaper of record pushed aside more momentous news, like the crisis in Libya.

Nevertheless, Asahi’s coverage has been instructive. In an essay published by the paper, 54-year-old critic Takashi Odajima discussed the perception gap that separates the mainstream press from the object of its scrutiny. The “existing media,” according to Odajima, is still somewhat in awe of technology, since most editors grew up in a pre-Internet world. To them the web and IT devices remain “unknown and frightening,” and the young man who used such tools to cheat on a university entrance exam had irresistible “news value.” In the days leading up to the arrest, reporters tried to fathom how the boy could solicit answers to test questions on a popular website while he was sitting for the test. There was something super-human about the skills involved: How fast can you type on a cellphone? Did he use special text-capture software? Why didn’t any of the proctors notice? The kid came across as an evil genius.

After he was caught and found to be a scared young man who despaired of not being able to get into Kyoto University — a public institution that his mother could afford — the media realized what was going on. To the boy, the Internet is the world he lives in, not a mysterious matrix behind a computer screen. His understanding of life is based on the shugochi (collective knowledge) represented by the Net. Pre-Internet people like those who control the media still look upon knowledge as something unique to each individual, while post-Internet people see it as something that’s out there, something you “access” as the need arises.

The media then realized the boy was naive — adept, for sure, but profoundly gullible; Which isn’t to say he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong, only that he went about it stupidly. He believed in the reliability of the Net and trusted the answers given to him by anonymous strangers who responded to his posted questions. The surest proof of this trust is the test answer that reportedly exposed him, a hilariously stilted, machine-translated English passage that any junior high school student would recognize as wrong. It was clear the boy did not represent a network of cyber-cheats working together. He was simply a desperate, lonely innocent whose faith in the Net almost guaranteed that he would get caught.

Once the press understood this, they joined the chorus of voices condemning Kyoto University for pressing charges: What had the boy done that was so terrible? Fail him, sure, but threaten him with prison? Nevertheless, they understood why the university responded the way it did. As novelist Yusuke Kishi pointed out in another essay in the Asahi series, the boy’s skills were certainly not unique to him. Someone more “literate” in the ways of the Internet and who possessed the same skills could use them to cheat and not get caught. A third essayist, computer expert Dan Kogai, takes this idea for granted, saying that prestigious universities have always been filled with students who got in through cheating.

Kyoto University has to make an example of this boy to show everyone that what he did is not just improper, but criminal, and in that regard it makes perfect sense that the boy has been charged with “obstructing the business of a university” (my emphasis). Japanese universities, both private and public, have built an entire industry around the entrance exam system. Schools charge ¥30,000 per test. Private institutions demand from successful candidates nonrefundable admission fees of ¥200,000 yen or more to “secure” enrollment before the test results for the more desirable public universities are announced, thus exploiting the anxieties of parents who are afraid their child will not get into any college. Cram schools earn big money teaching students how to pass these tests. Universities take advantage of the widely held belief that your entire life is based on which school you attend. It’s to their advantage to be seen as difficult to get into, and they ensure such a reputation by forcing young people who want to get in to study things they don’t learn in high school. Every Japanese student knows that once you’re in you don’t have to study. All you have to do is show up for classes and pay your tuition.

As Kogai says, the people equipped to pass these tests are those who went to “elite high schools” or cram schools, meaning people with money. Both Odajima and Kishi support the current exam system, saying that it is the only fair way to evaluate everyone, and it’s worth noting that both men went to prestigious universities and are now successful in their respective pursuits. Kogai, on the other hand, was rejected by the Japanese higher education system and went to the University of California, Berkeley, which he dropped out of, before setting up as a kind of maverick programmer-blogger. He believes the exam system is inherently unfair, and that the boy caught cheating with his cell phone inadvertently exposed it for what it is: a racket. That’s why he’s dangerous, and why it’s important that his life is perceived as being over.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.