Toddler killed by kindergarten rival's mother

BUNKYO-KU, where a toddler was strangled a fortnight ago, means "Borough of Culture". As the name suggests, it is one of the smartest, brainiest and snootiest areas in all of Japan.

To the east is Tokyo University, the most prestigious in Asia, and scattered among the parks and temples of Bunkyo-ku are a crop of superior colleges and higher education institutes.

The concentration of good universities has encouraged a concentration of elite high schools; associated with the smart schools are smart kindergartens. And it was from one of these, attended by her older brother, that two- year-old Haruna Wakayama was snatched last month.

One moment she was there, the next she had gone. A frantic search involving hundreds of police produced no trace.

Then, three days later, a weeping 35-year-old woman named Mitsuko Yamada walked into a Tokyo police station with a story to tell. It was she, according to the police, who had lured Haruna away from her mother, and took her to the nearby public lavatories, where the child was throttled with a scarf.

After wrapping the body in a black bag, Mrs Yamada took it by train to her parents' home in the countryside, where she buried it in the back yard.

But if the circumstances of the murder were shocking enough, it was the alleged motive which has provoked the greatest horror. For according to police leaks, Haruna was killed because of education.

Both Mrs Yamada and Mrs Wakayama had sons at the elite Otowa Nursery School, where the abduction took place. Both had two-year-old daughters who had been entered for similarly prestigious kindergartens.

A few days before the murder, Haruna had been accepted for a place, while Mrs Yamada's daughter had been turned down. The details are still hazy, but the Japanese media are in little doubt - Mrs Yamada killed her victim in a fit of envy.

The murder has highlighted once again the species known in Japanese as kyoiku mama - "education mums". For decades, the country's teenagers have gone through so-called "examination hell", the annual struggle to get into the best universities, but recently the ordeal has begun even younger.

Prestige secondary schools, which prepare children for university, are in turn served by elite junior schools, which recruit from the cream of the kindergartens. In the past 10 years, an even more alarming industry has established itself: cramming schools for toddlers and even babies, to prepare them for "entrance examinations" for nursery.

Teachers estimate that there are 5,000 of these infant scholars in Tokyo alone. In Bunkyo-ku, 80 per cent of children have sat through some kind of "exam" by the time they are six.

A typical course of tuition costs 1.2m yen (pounds 7,400) for an exam which typically consists of identifying colours and a few minutes of baby talk. But the talents and potential of children are hardly the point here - the kindergarten cramming craze is all about competition between parents.

A glut of media reports on nursery schools last week depicted them as seething cauldrons of adult ambition and rivalry, as bitter as that of any office. The magazine Aera interviewed a professional counsellor who reported growing numbers of young housewives tormented by the psychological warfare among their peers.

"In the past raising healthy children was something respected and admired in itself," said Hisako Nagahisa, a psychologist at Tokyo's Shirayuri University. "But nowadays women find it harder to take pride in the job of bringing up children. These women look for a simple way to measure their own worth in the eyes of society, and they find it in their children's entrance examinations."