When the grass is greener on the other side


I was starting a load of laundry, my son’s dirty trousers in hand, when I sensed something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on what was troubling me. I held up my kid’s khakis, looking for a clue. It wasn’t that his pants were filthy. They are always filthy. It wasn’t that they were full of holes. That’s normal, too. Then it dawned on me: no grass stains.

Where I grew up in the United States, no self-respecting 9-year-old came home until his trousers were green at the knees. Grass stains were proof of proper play. Indelible evidence that he had slid down hills, jumped out of trees and wrestled his best friend to the ground.

Grass was everywhere. Every house had lawns front and back. The parks were grass. And of course our school playground was almost entirely lawn. So grass stains were a fact of life. You know how Japanese commercials for laundry soap always show housewives struggling with soy sauce stains? In American detergent ads, valiant moms battle grass stains.

Now I’m living in Tokyo, where grass is scarcer than shoes in my size. The lack of lawns is not a modern, urban phenomenon; grass has always been a luxury in Japan. In feudal times, only lords had lawns. They were part of formal gardens, meant to be looked upon, not trod upon. These days, you rarely see lawns except at pricey golf courses and the baseball fields reserved for teams.

My son has lived in Japan since he was 5, long enough that he’s forgotten what it feels like to play on grass. He certainly doesn’t get the opportunity at the Japanese elementary school he attends. The schoolyard there is completely paved over with a rubbery material meant to cushion falls and keep down dust. And that’s fancy by Japanese standards; at most schools, the schoolyard is plain old dirt.

But change is afoot. There’s a growing movement called “kotei shibafu-ka” promoting the planting of grass in schoolyards.

It started out as turf envy. When Japanese began traveling overseas in greater numbers after the war, they noticed that almost all schools in the United States, Australia and Europe had grassy playgrounds. Couldn’t Japanese schools have lawns too? But Japan was in the middle of a baby boom, and space for lawns was seen as something overcrowded schools couldn’t afford, according to Takayuki Endo of Shibafu Spirit, a nonprofit organization in Kobe that promotes school lawns.

Interest surged again in the 1990s, when soccer became popular in Japan. Millions of Japanese tuned in their televisions to J. League games and admired the thick green turf. Parents wanted to give their kids the experience of playing sports on grass.

And again, in the last few years, school lawns have gotten attention in the debate on how to reform Japanese education. “We are rethinking everything, and one of the ideas is to provide a greener environment for children,” Endo said.

There are certainly advantages to grassy schoolyards. Children are less likely to get hurt if they fall, and are more active and willing to engage in sports when they aren’t afraid of falling. Grass eliminates sunabokori, the dust that blows off dry dirt schoolyards into classrooms and neighboring homes. Lawns drain better than hard-packed dirt, so playgrounds are less likely to turn muddy in wet weather. And a lawn simply looks and feels good.

For the past six years, the Education Ministry has encouraged schools to plant grass by subsidizing one-third of the initial construction cost, which averages about 20 million yen for 2,000 sq. meters of turf. To date, 272 schools around the country have planted lawns, but that’s less than 1 percent of the roughly 45,000 public elementary and middle schools in Japan.

Unfortunately, nearly all of these newly planted school lawns are doomed to fail, asserts Yoshito Asano, professor of environmental science and landscape architecture at Chiba University. “Most schools planted either the kind of grass that is used in public parks, which will never hold up to the heavy use in schoolyards, or the fancy turf used in soccer fields, which requires daily watering and far more maintenance than schools can afford,” he lamented.

Asano is trying to develop a lawn specifically for schools, one that is inexpensive to install, easy to maintain and will hold up under schoolyard conditions. He’s testing his plan at three elementary schools with the cooperation of the Ichikawa school district in Chiba Prefecture.

“I recommended a blend of two grasses so the lawn will stay green in all seasons, and to prevent the disease problems that plague single-variety lawns,” Asano said. “And whereas grass is usually planted in sandy soil, we’ve added clay to improve water retention so watering won’t be necessary. Finally, I recommended that grass be allowed to grow longer than is usual in Japan, to about 5 cm, which reduces the need for mowing and makes the lawn more resistant to wear,” he explained.

Wear and tear is a serious issue. Japan is densely populated and short of land, so schoolyards here see heavier use than those in other countries simply because there are more schoolchildren per square meter. The elementary school I attended in Michigan, for example, has 31,246 sq. meters of grassy play area for about 350 students. My son’s school here in Tokyo has the same number of students, but only 2,664 sq. meters of play space. If my son’s school had grass, each square meter would get more than 10 times the wear of the lawn at my old school. And it would also have to accommodate the neighbors and sports groups who use the grounds after hours.

It makes me sad that my son can’t play on grass. So last week I took him to a Tokyo park that has a lawn. Well, actually, it’s an anemic patch of grass, but I figured it would be good enough to put some green stains on my son’s knees. I led my son up to it.

“Play on the grass, my child!” I urged. “Frolic! Tumble! Cavort!”

My son looked at me sideways and frowned. “Get real, Mom. Grass isn’t for playing on. Everyone knows that.” And he pointed to the little sign I hadn’t noticed when we walked up.

It said: “Shibafu ni hairanaide kudasai (Please keep off the grass).”