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Cyber-kids get a break during Bon holidays

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

You didn’t need prophetic powers, back in the 1980s when the personal computer was starting to show its potential, to foresee something like Internet addiction. It should have been obvious. It was, to science-fiction writer William Gibson. Reminiscing to Time magazine in 1995, he recalled his shock, as he walked by a video-game arcade sometime in the late ’80s, at how absorbed the players were in their glowing screens. “I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids were,” he said. “These kids clearly believed in the space the games projected. They develop a belief that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen.”

Gibson gave that space the name we know it by today: cyberspace. If it were physical, we’d say it was getting pretty crowded. Japan’s health ministry, in a report released earlier this month, estimates the number of “Internet-dependent” junior and senior high school students at 520,000 — 8 percent of the nationwide junior and senior high school population, versus 2 percent among adults.

What sets “dependency” apart from healthy use? Any dividing line is bound to be arbitrary, but the key warning signs are sleep loss and a difficulty connecting to anyone or anything except via computer. Call them addicts or Internet-dependent or simply citizens of somewhere other than “here”; anyway, 22 percent of senior high schoolers typically spend five hours or more of a day off school online. “Few consider themselves ill,” a specialist in Internet dependency tells the Asahi Shimbun. Clearly he takes a different view.

Let’s admit that we’re probably all “ill,” seen from a perspective different from our own. In the 1990s there was an interesting social disease going around. It went by the name enjo kōsai, a term untranslatable into intelligible English but widely recognized as a euphemism for more or less genteel teenage prostitution. The girls were not starvelings or drug addicts but brand addicts, lusting after brand-name luxury items and willing to do whatever it took to procure them. Revisiting those old goings-on recently, the women’s weekly Shukan Josei managed to evoke a sense of nostalgia. The characteristic look of the time, by no means confined to enjo kōsai, was really something — bold, brash, defiant of all conventional notions of beauty: “loose socks,” towering platform soles, faces artificially tanned near-black.

It peaked in 1996 and gradually died out — though enjo kōsai, Shukan Josei tells us, is still around, if much attenuated, the weakened economy having considerably flattened the going rates. Instead of brand goods, which few care much about anymore, the draw today is smart phone accessories. Cyberspace calls louder now than it did then.

Fashions come and go, cool one day, silly the next. Why should our eyes be black, brown or blue when they can be red, green, yellow or amethyst? Aera magazine, a little nervously, reports on the current enthusiasm for color contact lenses. They make dyeing your eyes as easy as dyeing your hair. Aera’s disquiet stems from the damage they might do — and a widespread willingness to disregard that in the eternal quest for “the look.” “My patients tell me they don’t mind a little pain,” an eye doctor tells the magazine. “They say it’s just like make-up — they’re embarrassed to go out without their color contacts.”

Last week Japan celebrated o-Bon, when the dead, according to ancient Buddhist belief, return to Earth and the living return to their hometowns. It’s one of those timeless festivals, its leisurely, swaying dance quietly defying both the midsummer heat and modernity’s relentless change. Crammed, jammed, clogged and snarled roads, planes, trains, airports and train stations make the trip possible for those who can stand it. This is a far cry from cyberspace. This is the physicality cyberspace rescued us from. No wonder we’re “dependent” on it.

So here we are, “back home,” three generations under one roof — once habitual, now rare. Grown-ups can revert briefly to childhood, and as for children, why shouldn’t they play at being real children, free for a few fleeting days from the mini-adulthood their education imposes on them in the name of nurturing future hyper-competitiveness in an increasingly hyper-competitive, globalized, cyberized world?

It’s a little disconcerting that Sunday Mainichi magazine, offering advice to senior citizens on how to entertain the visiting grandkids, focuses on — of all things! — cleanliness. Older people, we’re told, tend to focus their gaze downward. Their floors are clean enough, but what about the shelves, the door lintels, the spaces between the window and the air conditioner? Look up, leave nothing to chance. Dust those frequently overlooked nooks and crannies. The grandchildren are coming!

Once upon a time kids enjoyed getting dirty, and their parents, perhaps recalling their own childhood, let them wallow until the pre-dinnertime scrubbing. Now, preschool children are more likely to be parked in front of educational DVDs or enrolled in English lessons than to be let loose in the vast, unregulated, unmediated, unpredictable outdoors.

There’s a marvelous scene, apropos of all this, in a bestselling Japanese novel published in 1997. “Shonen H (A Boy Called H),” by Kappa Senoh, is a fictionalized memoir of the author’s wartime childhood. It’s o-Bon, 1940. Awful things have happened and worse is to come; meanwhile “H,” a sixth-grader, and his sister, two years younger, are allowed to travel alone by train from their home in Kobe to visit the maternal grandparents in Hiroshima. No sooner do they arrive than H, betrayed as an outsider by his Kobe accent, is stoned by some local kids. Well, that’s life. No talk of bullying, no complexes, no trauma, just a determination on H’s part to learn the Hiroshima dialect, which he speedily does.

The next day brings the next crisis: the little girl falls into “one of the sunken jars containing human waste for use as fertilizer.” Now there’s an adventure worth having! “Telling her to be quiet, H shoved her into the irrigation canal by the paddy field and started washing her with his hands. … In no time his own hands were sticky, and the smell was awful.”

They get home at last. The grandparents’ take on all this? Laughter of course, and: “You’re lucky — the fertilizer will make you grow up big!”

Today’s cyber-kids might be the better for a little fertilizing.