The reader is invited to accompany me on a trip (return, not one-way) to second childhood. Those of us who learned Japanese as adults missed out, after all, on a vast store of linguistic experience. Is it irretrievable? Maybe not. The child’s world is laid out in children’s books. Leave your adulthood at the gate and walk in. No one will ask you for an ID. No one cares if you’re not under 12.

Judging by a book I chose more or less at random, however, childhood is not what it used to be. The title is “Onna no ko ni makenai zo” (女の子に負けないぞ) — roughly, “No Way I’m Taking a Back Seat to Girls,” by Sanae Kamijiyo (2002). The opening scene is strikingly contemporary. It is the start of a new school year and Nikichi, 11, is entering fifth grade. The first day of school brings with it suspense: Who’s in my class? Who will the sensei (先生, teacher) be?

The kids are assembled, but, mysteriously, the teacher doesn’t show. Why? At last the vice principal appears, visibly ill at ease. The teacher . . . er . . . couldn’t come, he stammers. Why not? An accident. What kind of accident? A . . . er . . . traffic accident.

The kids know something ugly is up. Even so, when the truth emerges, it comes as a shock. One student reads about it in the newspaper and announces, “Bokutachi no tannin taiho saretan datta ?(僕達の担任、逮捕されたんだった, Our homeroom teacher was arrested).”

Arrested! What for? “Ano ne, kōkō-sei no onna no ko to enjo kōsai shitete taiho sareta no yo, iya desho? (あのね、高校生の女の子と援助交際してて逮捕されたのよ。嫌でしょ? He was?arrested for buying sex from a senior high school girl; isn’t that gross?).”

Gross indeed. Here I am a few paragraphs into a book about 11-year-olds at school and I’m reading about enjo kōsai (schholgirl prostition) of all things!

My surprise is stupid, of course. After all, I read the newspapers too, and the relentless sexualization of childhood has been going on for a long time. That teachers are sometimes a party to it is lamentable. Education ministry statistics show 86 teachers in public schools nationwide — a record number — were dismissed in 2005 for waisetsu na koi (わいせつな行為, obscene behavior).? One example in the fall of 2007, the arrest of? Sapporo elementary school kyōtō sensei (教頭先生, vice principal) Takayuki Hosoda on suspicion of committing indecent acts with a miseinen (未成年, underage) girl, caused a national stir. For 16 years, police alleged, he had been leading a double life,? picking up young women who looked like would-be models and, pretending to be a professional photographer, taking their photos and selling them to adult magazines. All the while he had enjoyed a reputation as a remarkably majime (まじめ, serious) educator.

To return to our children’s story: A new teacher is hastily brought in, the sort of teacher we all wish we had in grade five: 23 and cool as a cucumber. No sooner has she written her name — Mayu Tsubooka — on the blackboard than she faces a sexual challenge. The leering class bully, a ne’er-do-well nicknamed “Debiru” (Devil) by the kids, calls out, “Sensei ikutsu? Dokushin? (先生いくつ?独身? Teacher, how old are you? Are you single?”)

Tsubooka sensei finds out the loudmouth’s name and says, “Suzuki-kun, ima no shitsumon wa sekuhara … ni atarimasu. Watashi ga kimi wo sekuhara de uttaeru koto mo dekimasu . . . Ki wo tsukenasai.” (鈴木君、今の質問はセクハラにあたります。私が君をセクハラで訴えることもできます。気をつけなさい, Suzuki, what you just asked me amounts to sexual harassment. I can sue you for that, so tread carefully.”)

Sekuhara is another theme we hear much of, but it’s generally considered a corporate and political vice (不道徳, vice, fudōtoku), the victim invariably on the weaker end of a power relationship (力関係, chikara kankei). One scarcely expects to find an elementary school teacher fending off a sexually harassing 11-year-old!

One day Devil goes too far. He calls out, “Sensei no mune chichai ne. Otoko mitai. (先生の胸ちっちゃいね。男みたい, What small breasts you have, teacher, just like a boy).” Tsubooka sensei lays down her chalk, walks straight up to the little monster and . . . simultaneously teaches and learns a lesson in exercising teacherly authority in our post-taibatsu (体罰, corporal punishment) age.

Once upon a time childhood meant innocence, and teachers — especially in Japan — were held in awe. We’ve traveled a long way since then — whether forward or backward is for the reader to say.

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