TOKYO (AP) _ A student outing in a remote fishing port. Heavy waves pounded a high concrete jetty. ``Show your fighting spirit!'' the older boys told their younger classmates, urging them to jump.

When it was over, four teen-age students had been swept away, and Japan was left pondering the price its youngsters pay for the rigid code of behavior in the nation's schools.

Tight discipline and strict standards are credited with helping Japan achieve a remarkable level of academic excellence. But unrelenting conformity, ritual bullying known as ``ijime,'' and rigorous testing all combine to produce pressure-cooker conditions.

The drownings occurred more than two weeks ago on the remote island of Oshima, 70 miles south of Tokyo. Word took time to filter out.

When it did, it became front-page news. National newspapers reported over the weekend that just before the drownings, the younger boys had planned a meeting to call for a halt to hazing.

Authorities are still trying to piece together exactly what happened on the afternoon of May 13. The leap from a 30-foot-high jetty has been a spring ritual for years at Oshima Minami High School. It is considered a rite of passage, a test of courage.

Twelve boys made the jump this year, despite waves of up to 21 feet.

``Let's see who's the bravest!'' was the rallying cry, according to an account last week in the Yomiuri newspaper.

Some of the boys balked, including at least one of those who drowned. But they apparently feared that if they refused to jump, they would face reprisal hazing in the dorms, where about two-thirds of the school's 150 students live.

Police identified the three drowned youths as Jin Matsuyama and Yuki Kitahara, both 15, and Kentaro Sato, 16. A fourth boy, 15-year-old Nobuto Takahashi, was missing and believed drowned.

They were the first known deaths associated with the leap, although two years ago one student was so frightened by it that he dropped out of school and returned to Tokyo.

Japan is prone to periodic bouts of soul-searching about the strictness of its educational system. But the Oshima deaths came at a time when debate was growing over bullying, excessive discipline and rote learning.

Commentators have criticized schools' emphasis on too much memorization, coupled with failure to teach ethics and encourage independent thinking. They note that top leaders of the cult accused in the Tokyo subway nerve-gas attack are products of Japan's best universities.

Last week, the Mainichi newspaper printed excerpts from the ``suicide diaries'' of a 13-year-old boy, despondent over being bullied, who killed himself last month. Police pledged to take a harder line in treating systematic bullying as a criminal matter.

Draconian school discipline, too, has been in the spotlight. Earlier this month, the principal of a private reform school was sentenced to six years in prison in the 1991 deaths of a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl who died of heat stroke after being locked in an unventilated metal container for two days. Police said the youngsters were being punished for smoking.

The Yomiuri on Saturday printed excerpts from one of the drowned boys' diaries, in which he described hazing including being forced to drink a concoction of cabbage, egg and oolong tea. The report said the freshmen had planned a meeting the very night of the tragedy to complain about hazing.

In Oshima, school officials apparently acknowledged the pressure put on younger boys by older ones.

``We must admit there was a bit of excessive attention to hierarchy,'' said vice principal Keiji Kazawa.

Lawyer Yasuhiro Yoshimine, a children's rights advocate, said it would have been very difficult for younger students to defy the older ones, especially in a dormitory where a strict pecking order reigned.

``This shows a very deep-rooted problem,'' Yoshimine said. ``The education system deprives students of their independence.''