Since 1974, 18-year-old Kobe high school student Makoto Kominani's life has been simple and rigorous. He has spent all day at school, slept three hours a night and studied the rest of the time.

The doctor told Takashi Sudo, son of Niigata schoolteachers, that if he could only afford five hours sleep a night, the best hours were 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. So he rigged a tape recorder to the timer of a rice cooker and his study day began at 3 a.m. with the sound of his own voice yelling "Get up. Get up. Get up."

Nine hours a day of extra study have kept Kiroharu Funaya near the top of his Hiroshima high school class. If he passes the university entrance exam for which 12 years of school have prepared him, he should realize his ambition to be an electronics engineer.

The three are among tens of thousands of Japanese students undergoing the rigors of this year's junken jigoku - "examination hell" - brutal academic struggle for university entrance. As the climax to a incredibly competitive educational system, the February-March examinations produce a tragic annual crop of suicides and nervous collapse. The knowledge race that leads up to the exam is a national controversy, but no one knows how to stop or solve it.

Parent face an unenviable dilemma. Most do not like treadmill education but neither do they want their children to lose out on life at the outset.

The 423 universities in Japan are of greatly varying quality. Students who win a place in the best of them can expect to ride first class the rest of their lives. Every year they pack their books and hit the examination trail.

Jamming planes, trains and hotels, they converge on the major university cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Sapporo.

Sudo, Funaya and Kominami met in Tokyo's swank New Otani Hotel, where they are paying $50 a day for bed and board while taking exams. The hotel supplies aspirin, university maps, train schedules, high-protein diets, late-night crammers' snacks and a special lounge for the boys who do not have their mother along watching over them.

The pale, sutdious Sudo, who wants to be a history teacher, has taken 14 exams so far and faces further, more difficult trials at two prestigious national universities. he was fidgeting, constantly glancing at his watch. "I am very tired," he admitted. he slammed his hand on the table with unexpected force to emphasize, "but it is my purpose of life."

He planned his own course of private study and chose to try only for universities with good history professors. He has been taking it easy in Tokyo, a startling behavioral change that prompted his worried mother to come to join him. "She was afraid I was caught up with a pimp," he said.

Kominami, a jolly, heavily muscled judo expert who does not want to go into his wealthy father's construction business, is taking no chances. Commuting between Tokyo, Kyoto and his home near Kobe, he has taken 30 exams at 10 universities in the last 16 days. His plan when he gets admitted to one is "to take a rest for four years," and then start working as a teacher of world history.

The students called the pressures and the demands for day-and-night study "crazy" but agreed that the examination month was perhaps the most critical of their lives.

Funaya, a wiry youth wearing a black sweater and corduroys, explained in good English, "The circumstances around me told me I have to study hard or I won't pass the exam."

"My school advised and ordered me to do it," said Kominami, who averaged three hours' sleep a night.

The pressure for places in good universities is constantly rising. Nearly 40 per cent of all Japanese high school graduates go on to college and concerned Education Ministry officials are unable to cool the cramming fever. Last year, 145,000 applicants sat for only 9,500 places at Waseda, a leading private university.

Although their study schedules in high school were severe, none of the three students interviewed at random in the New Otani's student lounge went to a juku , or private cramming school. Nowadays eager parents are sending kindergarten children to juku for extra study.

The tales of juku excesses are legion. One primary school crammer near Nagoya locks its students up in a hotel for intense study in the week before an elite junior high exam.

Sudo said students fighting for places in the premier college, Tokyo University, work hardest of all. "There is one in my class who didn't sleep two nights a week. he didn't ever eat lunch - he said it was a waste of time," Sudo daid.

One thing the three candidates were sure of - that they will never again have to work so hard. "Never," said Sudo. "Never," Funaya agreed. Kominami gave a broad grin, "Nobody in Japan."