Are kindergarteners racist? Do they discriminate between children with different skin colors?

“Children are too innocent,” one Japanese mother told me in a survey of parents’ views. Her conclusion: “They do not hold racial prejudices.”

As innocent as children may be, extensive research conducted in the United States and Europe has shown that children as young as three have the capacity to discriminate against others based on race. However, little research on this topic has been conducted in Japan, a more culturally homogeneous society than most in the West.

The issue of prejudice among children is particularly relevant for Japan, a country projected to have the world’s oldest population by 2025. With this demographic reality looming, there are concerns the Japanese economy will be unable to sustain itself without the help of millions more immigrant workers. Some economists believe it will be necessary to allow 610,000 immigrants into the workforce per year for the next 50 years to counter the effects of the declining birthrate. With unprecedented diversity in Japan looking increasingly inevitable, issues of racial prejudice are bound to bubble to the surface more often — even among young children.

All this begs the question: to what degree are Japanese children racially biased? Are there differences in the attitudes of Japanese children attending international schools and those that study in less diverse environments? If a kindergarten-age child is prejudiced, how did this come to be? Understanding the answers could suggest ways of reducing bias and preparing Japan to meet the challenges of demographic change.

Also, in light of the aforementioned mother’s certainty that prejudice in young children is an impossibility, it seems likely that parents will need help to become more aware of these issues. If parents can recognize that some children do hold racial prejudices, and understand why these prejudices exist, then they may be able to help reduce them.

One of the first changes likely to occur when immigrants become a larger part of Japanese life, according to Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, is that greater diversity will result in a weakened sense of community. Diversity tends to call attention to the differences between “in-groups” and “out-groups,” he argues — this causes the in-group to bond more closely together. In a group-oriented society like Japan, this effect could be heightened, resulting in ethnocentrism.

However, Putnam is optimistic. He says ethnic diversification is “one of the most important challenges facing modern societies, and at the same time one of our most significant opportunities,” and claims that immigration cultivates scientific creativity and economic growth.

In trying to make the most of this opportunity, Japan could take advantage of concepts such as “contact theory” — the premise that interaction with members of a group other than one’s own can lead to a more positive attitude toward that other group. In particular, this has been shown to be true when the groups are equal in status, share a common goal, work cooperatively and have support from a common authority figure.

All of these conditions are characteristic of international school kindergartens. So, last summer I undertook research to compare the attitudes of Japanese children in these racially diverse classrooms and the attitudes of Japanese kids in regular, comparatively homogenous schools. The research focused on the children’s perceptions of “in-group” (Japanese) and “out-group” (Caucasian, African, South-Asian) children. Parents also took part, filling out surveys about their own views on race, and what influence they felt they had on their child.

For six weeks, I visited classrooms and asked three- to six-year-old Japanese children questions about their desire for playing and sharing, as well as their opinions on the sociability and competence of children of different races. Speaking with each child one-on-one, I went through my list, pointing at pictures of Caucasian, African, South-Asian or Japanese children and asking questions: “Do you want to play with this child?”; “How many candies do you want to share with this child?”; “Is this child scary?”; and “Is this child smart?”.

I worked with over 60 children, and amidst long stretches of answers that extended no further than “yes” or “no,” there were occasional moments when students opened up and elaborated expressively on their answers.

“This boy has dark skin. I’m scared of that,” said one child.

“I want to play with everybody because everyone is my friend,” said another.

While these individual comments were enlightening in themselves, the overall results were much more intriguing. Children from different types of schools did have different attitudes.

When presented with pictures of Japanese, Caucasian, African and South Asian children and asked, “Who do you want to play with?”, the children from regular kindergartens were significantly more likely to pick the Japanese child. In contrast, international school kindergarteners were equally as likely to choose a Caucasian or Japanese playmate — but still expressed little desire to play with African and South Asian children. This pattern in international schools may be explained by the fact that at all schools surveyed approximately 80 percent of people in the kindergarten classroom (including students and teachers) were either Caucasian, East Asian or a mixed-race member of those groups.

When students were asked how many candies they would like to share with another child, international-school students again showed less bias. While regular-school students wanted to give significantly more candies to the Japanese child than to the non-Japanese children, international-school students generally offered a similar amount to each child.

Lastly, although students from international schools showed a more open-minded attitude about playing and sharing with “out-group” members, the same trend did not hold when it came to perceptions of other kids’ sociability and competence. Regular-school students rated “out-group” members as more sociable and more competent than their Japanese counterparts. In contrast, international-school students rated all groups similarly. Perhaps this difference indicates that the Japanese culture of modesty and self-effacement is understood more quickly in regular Japanese schools than in international schools.

It is not my intent to claim that children are morally flawed because of the biases they displayed in their answers. But there is room for improvement, and this is where parents come in.

Based on the parents’ survey answers, it seems that they have no direct effect on their children’s attitudes. Some parents’ answers showed an extremely tolerant attitude and a determination to raise an accepting child, yet the responses of their children suggested a lack of parental influence. While this finding is in line with many psychology studies on similar topics, it does not mean that parents are powerless. There is also some good news.

One area where parents exert a huge amount of influence is in their choice of school for their child. More tolerant parents opted to send their kids to more diverse schools. This gave their children access to and contact with children from a wider array of ethnic groups, which in itself would appear to curb the development of racial bias.

While not everyone can send their child to an international school, simply allowing a child to interact with peers of other races makes them want to play with “out-group” children more. Of course, this is not always possible, as one mother explained: “I want my child to play with non-Japanese children, but it’s difficult because we only live near Japanese families.” Fortunately, in the years to come parents will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that the growing diversity of Japan will provide their children.

In the U.S., people of all different races identify themselves as American and not an eyebrow is raised. But in Japan, people who look or speak differently are often labeled a “gaijin,” an outsider. No matter how “Japanese” a person might feel, this label acts to set them apart from the Japanese people at large. This is harmful and unfair.

Over the coming generations, we should hope that increased diversity breaks down this mind-set in Japan. If this happens, different groups will become more cohesive, blurring the boundaries between them. For the future of the country, it is necessary to guide our children to become more understanding and open-minded towards others. Efforts in this direction must increase now, because it is today’s children who will lead the new, multicultural Japan.

Special thanks to Saint Maur International School, Yokohama International School, Treehouse Montessori School, Nishimachi International School and Ghinrei Kindergarten.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.