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The arrest June 22 of a high-school student on suspicion of arson and murder in connection with a fire at his home that killed his stepmother, half brother and half sister highlights the straits in which many students preparing for entrance exams may find themselves. The incident serves as a warning to the parents of such students.

The boy’s father, a medical doctor, had placed his hopes in the son’s future enrollment in medical school. This case seems to be one in which a parent’s high expectations exerted such unbearable pressure on a child that the child made a desperate and fatal move to escape the burden.

Early on the morning of June 20, the two-story home of the 47-year-old doctor, in the town of Tawaramoto, Nara Prefecture, burned down. The bodies of his 38-year-old wife, 7-year-old second son and 5-year-old daughter were found in the debris. His oldest son, 16, was soon reported missing. At the time of the fire, the father was reportedly working the night shift at a hospital in neighboring Mie Prefecture.

Two days later the boy was found watching television in the house of a stranger, a 60-year-old woman of Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, and fled. He was eventually arrested while riding a bicycle that he had apparently stolen. He told police he wanted to watch the World Cup soccer matches, but then confessed to setting fire to his house. His stepmother and siblings were found to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Neighbors describe the family as pleasant and say the parents were keen on their children’s education. In elementary school the boy made good grades and was a leading member of the soccer club. His classmates in elementary school recall a “brainy and interesting guy.”

The boy attended an integrated junior and senior high school in the same prefecture, one known for sending graduates to prestigious universities like the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. This shows how early the competition starts for some youngsters aspiring to enter medical school.

The father used to call his son’s study room the “ICU (intensive care unit)” and began giving him direct academic instruction as he prepared for the junior high school’s entrance exam. After he joined the school, the father hit the boy every time his academic performance declined. The father’s attitude may have reflected both his love and expectations for his son. The boy, however, apparently felt tormented.

The boy told police he once went near his father’s room with murderous intent. He also said that on the day he set the house on fire, he had feared that his parents would discover at a parent-teacher meeting scheduled later in the day that he had lied about his English test score. He expressed some contrition, saying he had done an “irrevocable thing” to his stepmother and siblings.

In his elementary-school graduation composition, the boy wrote about his dream of becoming a doctor, saying his father looked “great” in a photo of him performing an operation. Still, the possibility should not be ruled out that the boy prematurely imposed a career decision on himself under the pressure of circumstances he was barely aware of.

The boy’s stepmother was also a doctor, working at a nursing-care facility for elderly people. The boy’s relatives include pharmacists. His grandmother, who runs a pharmacy with her husband, is said to have been a strict parent who molded the boy’s father into a doctor. Perhaps the father unwittingly passed on these expectations to the boy. A teacher says the boy seemed to have become indecisive about his future after first expressing a desire to go to medical school.

The boy’s father divorced his first wife before the boy entered elementary school, and soon married a colleague. The stepmother is reported to have thought that her children’s freedom should be respected but that she tended to side with her husband when it came to problems with her stepson. The boy told police he bore a grudge against his stepmother because she “tattled” to his father “about everything.” The mother may have failed to play a moderating role as the father drove the boy hard.

An integrated junior and senior high school is usually dedicated to preparing students for university entrance examinations and tends to be a place of high pressure. Were teachers at the school paying enough attention to how the boy communicated and built trustful relations with them and fellow students?

It is hoped that the family court will learn what the boy was thinking before his desperate act, get him to realize the gravity of what he did, and find ways to re-educate him. Parents would do well to consider that the mere repetition of the phrase “keep studying” does not always encourage children to excel.

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