Schools in Japan need to give lessons in empathy

Dear Minister of Education Tatsuo Kawabata, recently I was told a deeply disturbing story by one of my students: A car hit a cyclist outside of her house. She immediately telephoned emergency services, but as she was doing so, she was horrified to see the driver reverse his car over the body of the hapless victim, an act that resulted in her death. My student was able to note the license number of the car and later relay it to the police. The man was subsequently arrested, although a poor old woman was needlessly murdered. Shocking, isn’t it?

However, my student was more alarmed by the fact that not one person stopped their car and offered to help. Not one bystander offered assistance. An old lady was left to die alone on the sidewalk. Did she die instantaneously? I do not know. It seems that people had more pressing issues to attend to than holding the hand of a confused, scared old lady who was left to ponder why someone hated her so much as she breathed her final breaths.

I have recently finished an article for a university publication entitled: “How does the Ministry of Education help to make Japanese People Japanese?”

My thoughts returned to this article upon hearing the news. What does it mean to be Japanese? If it is acceptable to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, then I want no part of it for my children. My student is Japanese and she and the other students in the class were quite rightly mortified. Every decent human being would be. It does seem, however, that in Japan if someone does a good deed, the expectation is always there that repayment is necessary. Therefore, people tend to not help others. What would the expectations of a kind word to a dying old woman be, I wonder?

A matter of days after the student told me her story, I went to an amusement park with my 3-year-old son. As I was pushing a baby car down a slope he got about 20 meters ahead of me, as he had taken the stairs. A small child was lying on the ground crying and obviously in distress. Passersby ignored him. My son went to his aid and asked if he was OK. He then looked for a park attendant and informed him of the child’s plight. Of course, the boy was merely throwing a tantrum, although his father had walked off and was not in plain sight.

I praised my son for his efforts and felt immensely proud of his innate empathy for others. He will begin kindergarten, next month and my fear is that he will be ridiculed for showing concern to others.

I have often stopped my car to ask people if they need assistance. Some pedestrians would rather deviate from their course than help others.

When I was a child I remember going to the door of strangers’ houses to ask for a drink of water. Nearly everyone gave me juice and cake. People willingly helped each other, and were glad to do so. Today, parents tell their children not to speak to strangers and they seem to lead by example.

I am aware of the fact that the Internet has helped make pedophiles feel less alienated, and that an estimated 80 percent of all sites featuring child pornography originate in Japan.

However, we should teach our children to trust people instead of fearing them. Most people are good, and if we continue to instill fear in the hearts of our kids, then our nightmares will be realized. We have to help others and be nice to people. Our kids will see this and, in turn, will copy our actions. If we shun others and ignore people in need, this too, will be mimicked. We have to decide what kind of world we want for our children. There are evil people, but they remain in the minority. Something is lacking in society when we idly stand by and allow our children to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. Maybe more should be done in schools to educate people if they lack the common sense to realize when someone needs help, or, as often seems to be the case, the common decency to do something about it.

Do you want your children to help others or to ignore them? It is up to you.


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