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Children of yesterday had more rags than riches

by Kaori Shoji

I saw a young girl and her sister with their parents the other day in Isetan, the department store of choice for young, hip families in the Tokyo area, probably shopping for Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi), which was last Saturday.

They were looking at clothes in the kids section where designer T-shirts and jeans are sold with price tags to the tune of 25,000 yen or more. Little girls were trying on True Religion designer jeans and parading in front of their parents who smiled, approved and then promptly told the salesclerk to wrap them up.

Watching them, I was struck — in fact more like hammered over the head with a blunt instrument — by how the experience of being a child in Japan has changed in the last 30 years.

This is not the standard “in my day we had to toil in the rice paddies with our feet soaked in mud the whole day” complaint, it’s just that sometimes I can’t help voicing my bewilderment. Wearing True Religions at the age of 7? As one of my more cantankerous uncles would have said, “Zeitakuna gaki (extravagant little brats),” which would usually be followed by a long and boring tirade on the state of the nation: “Kono kunimo mo oshimai da na! (This country is finished!)”

A generation ago, being a child in Tokyo was altogether less convenient, more challenging and definitely uncomfortable. Adults smoked, drank and argued inside cramped spaces where kids could see, hear and take in everything.

During baseball season, adults hogged the television almost every weekend; they were unreliable about keeping promises; and they claimed there was no money in the house to cater to their kids’ deep and abiding cravings for toys, sweets and video games, never mind designer clothing. I wore my cousin’s osagari (hand-me-down) clothes, which were then passed onto my younger sister before my mother finally consented to discard them — but not before cutting them up into little squares to use as hokoritori (dust wipes).

Going to McDonald’s was a monumental treat for us, usually reserved for those occasions when my mother was seriously ill and my father was away on a shuccho (business trip), in which case we were allowed to gorge on take-out Big Macs in front of the TV. My mother, however, drew the line at buying us Coca-Cola or getting dessert.

Even now I get a terrible hankering for the greasy apple pies sold under the Golden Arches.

Like most Japanese dads, my father dedicated his heart and soul to the company, so he was hardly ever around. On the rare occasions that he was, he went about into a kind of shell-shocked state of fatigue and chronic irritability. Not that we questioned his chosen lifestyle. After all, the fashionable TV commercial of the era was for an adrenaline-stimulating energy drink called “Regain,” which was sold under the catchy slogan of “Nijuyojikan tatakaemasuka? (Can you do battle 24 hours a day?)”

When my dad was around we were told to keep silent and not bother him, and no one dared protest when he played his Miles Davis records full blast on the stereo for what seemed like an eternity. He once told me point-blank when I was around 10-years-old that I shouldn’t talk to him unless it was an ikiruka shinuka (life or death) emergency, or when I had something exceptionally interesting to say.

“Kodomo no hanashi wa kikuni taenai (Children’s talk is not worth listening to)” was what he thought and that pretty much put an end to all conversation between us for the next five years or so.

Going out for Sunday shopping to a depato (department store) was on my list of arienai koto (things that could never happen) during my childhood, as would be seeing my father waiting outside the fitting room as I tried on some impossibly expensive outfit. I think the shock would have sent me into a coma.

Novelist Osamu Dazai famously wrote “Kodomo yori, oyaga daijito omoitai (I like to think that parents are more important than their children),” which more of less justified his right as a parent of four children to drink, gamble, womanize and eventually commit shinju (double suicide) with one of his lovers.

My father wasn’t quite as extreme but he certainly knew how to put his children in their place. I don’t know whether being a kid then was better or worse than being one now, or whether a pair of designer jeans guarantee a happy childhood memory.

One thing’s for sure: On most weekend mornings I insist on listening to Miles at full blast over the speakers.