Childhood. We all know it, we’ve all been through it, we’ve all lost it. Memory retains traces of it. We recall facts, incidents, fragments — but not what it felt like to be a child. Childish feelings are nameable to the adult, but not recoverable. They are on the other side of an impassable boundary between the adult’s world and the child’s.

As with individuals, so with nations. History, made by grownups and written by grownups, forgets its children. We scour the history books in vain, mostly, for the children of the past. The historical drama as it comes down to us has few child actors.

Last Wednesday was Children’s Day. Drawing on archaeology and literature where history fails us, let us welcome the children of old Japan back onstage.

It’s a long story — 12,000 years long — with a strange trajectory: from fertility and mortality, twin preoccupations of prehistory, to infertility and longevity, characteristic idiosyncrasies of our own day.

Japan’s current birth rate hovers around 1.3 children per woman — the world’s second lowest after Hong Kong’s. Its population has been in decline since 2005. Challenging careers, the high cost of child rearing, the attractions of freedom and a skewed social system that places an inordinate domestic burden on women are all reasons not to have children. Pets seem to be replacing them. The nation’s 23.2 million dogs and cats far outnumber its 17 million children under 16.

What would women of the Stone Age Jomon Period (circa 8000-300 B.C.) have thought of that? Jomon ceramic sculpture, among the world’s oldest, has one overriding motif — pregnancy. Thousands of years before agriculture, before metal, before the potter’s wheel and potter’s kiln, at the very dawn of human consciousness on these islands, birth, the bringing forth of new life, was uppermost in the mind.

So was its concomitant, death. Life expectancy at birth was 15 years — versus 82 today. Few Jomon children survived infancy. A Jomon site in Aomori Prefecture has yielded burial jars for more than 880 infants — six times the number of adults. Massive fecundity was humanity’s only lifeline. The first battle on the Japanese archipelago was fought against no human enemy but against extinction. It lasted thousands of years and was won — barely — by women having children, and children, the hardiest of them, clinging to life against unfathomable odds.

It’s not easy being a child in Japan. Proof is a finding by Hokkaido University researchers in 2004 that nearly a quarter of all Japanese junior high school children suffer from latent if not full-blown clinical depression.

The scale is new; the phenomenon is not. It goes back at least 1,000 years, as a 10th-century diary by a Kyoto noblewoman establishes beyond doubt. The diary is titled “Kagero Nikki” (“The Gossamer Years”). The author’s name is unknown, but her plight is famous. Unhappily married to a prince with eight wives vying for his whimsical attention (polygamy was the norm among aristocrats of the time), she takes a perverse pleasure in her sorrow and her tearful rage. To her only son she is, after her fashion, a devoted mother — but as any offspring of a 20th- or 21st-century broken home can attest, the child never comes off unscathed.

“The boy” — the diary doesn’t name him — was born in 955. The marriage, never happy, was by then already breaking down, and the author’s sardonic comment as the boy turns 3 is a gem of compressed pathos: “The child, who was beginning to talk, took to imitating the words with which his father always left the house: ‘I’ll come again soon, I’ll come again soon,’ he would chant, rather stumbling in the effort. I was sharply conscious of my loneliness as I listened to him. My nights too were lonely . . . “

“One day” — the boy is 10 or 11 at the time of this entry — “when (the prince and I) had been taking our ease rather pleasantly together, a series of trivialities led to strong words on both sides, and he left in a fit of rage. Calling our son out to the veranda, he announced that he did not intend to come again. The boy came back into the room weeping bitterly. He refused to answer my questions . . . “

The years pass. The boy is 15, the prince his usual insouciant, neglectful self. “I was obsessed,” writes the author, “with thoughts of death and suicide, but concern for the boy restrained me . . . Once, to see how he would react, I suggested to the boy that I might retire and become a nun. Child though he was, he burst into tears. ‘If you do that, I will become a priest,’ he said. ‘What reason would there be for me to go on as I am?’ “

The following year, mother and son retreat for spiritual solace to a mountain temple: “I had come here by my own choice, and I was content. I could not help brooding nonetheless over the load of karma that had driven me to such a hermitage. Also I was distressed that the boy seemed so apathetic . . . All day long he stayed shut up in the house, and as I watched him try unsuccessfully to get down the rough food to which I had condemned us — it was all right for me, this eating of pine needles, but what of him? — I would feel the tears welling up.”

All this portends a hopelessly neurotic future for the boy. He seems, however, to escape the worst. The diary breaks off abruptly in 974. The boy is 19. Having secured an Imperial Palace appointment as “Vice-Chief of the Right Horse Stables,” he is courting a certain lady via shy exchanges of poems, some of which his mother, a noted poetess, helps write.

Nineteen was late for a first courtship. The eponymous hero of Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji” was married at 12, immediately following his coming-of-age ceremony. “The nuptial observances were conducted with great solemnity,” Murasaki writes. “The groom seemed . . . quite charming in his boyishness. The (16-year-old) bride was . . . somewhat ill at ease with such a young husband.”

Well she might be. She would have been more so had she divined Genji’s own feelings, compounded of yearning for his late mother and longing for his royal father’s new 16-year-old consort, who bore a striking resemblance to the dead lady.

But the emotions of the child-betrothed were beside the point, trumped by political considerations quite beyond their grasp. “Marriage politics” sounds better than war as a means of securing power, but it was hard on the children.

Masters of the art were the Fujiwara clan, the power behind the throne throughout the peaceful and unwarlike Heian Period (794-1185). The point was to marry Fujiwara daughters into the Imperial Family — to a cadet like Genji or, better still, to a child-Emperor. Most Emperors of the time were children, starting with 8-year-old Emperor Seiwa in 858. Emperor Ichijo was 6 when he ascended the throne in 980, and 10 when married to a 15-year-old Fujiwara cousin — whose father acted as regent. The Emperor’s sole political function was to produce a Fujiwara-related heir, in favor of whom, under Fujiwara pressure, he would abdicate just as he was growing old enough to exercise independent judgment — at 26 in Seiwa’s case, 30 in Ichijo’s.

Few early cultures can boast 400 years of peace. It is one of Heian Japan’s claims to fame. Courtiers in Kyoto, the capital, were too absorbed in their poetry, music, perfume-blending, wine-bibbing and amorous intrigues to notice the martial spirit brewing offstage in the remote eastern wilds near today’s Tokyo. The inevitable eruption caught them unawares; their refined little society sank like a stone.

The issue was an Imperial succession dispute that gave two rival military clans, the Heike and the Minamoto, a pretext to assert themselves.

The Heike’s initial ascendancy began to crumble around 1180. The resurgent Minamoto overran the capital and pursued the retreating Heike south. Emperor at the time was one Antoku, aged 8. With him in tow, the Heike took to their ships — prelude to the famous naval battle of Dannoura, fought in the strait between Honshu and Kyushu.

The Heike cause was hopeless. The 13th-century epic “Heike Monogatari” chronicles the agony of defeat. A Heike court lady, “taking the Emperor in her arms, spoke thus: ‘Though I am but a woman I will not fall into the hands of the foe, but will accompany our Sovereign Lord.’

“With a look of surprise and anxiety on his face (the Emperor) inquired . . . : ‘Where is it that you are going to take me?’

“Turning to her youthful Sovereign with tears streaming down her cheeks, she answered: ‘ . . . This land is . . . now but a vale of misery. There is a Pure Land of happiness beneath the waves, another capital where no sorrow is. Thither it is that I am taking our Lord.’

“And thus comforting him, she bound his long hair up in his dove-colored robe and . . . sank with him at last beneath the waves.”

In 1971, the psychiatrist Takeo Doi published a landmark book later translated into English as “The Anatomy of Dependence.” It introduced the concept of “amae,” defined as “the craving of a newborn child for close contact with its mother, and, in the broader sense, the desire to deny the fact of separation that is an inevitable part of human existence.” Healthy and natural in an infant, amae persisting into adulthood to the point of defining the culture implies something like mass pathology.

“I would suggest,” Doi writes, “that the basic emotional urge that has fashioned the Japanese for 2,000 years is none other than the amae mentality. The realization that this mentality . . . is basically childish did not, I suspect, occur to anyone until after Japan’s defeat in World War II.”

Something of the sort must have struck General Douglas MacArthur, who, during the postwar Occupation he headed as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, described Japan as “a nation of 12-year-olds.”

In his 1969 book “Everyday Life in Traditional Japan,” the historian Charles Dunn writes of the Edo Period (1603-1867): “In the lower classes at least, mothers breast-fed their children for as long as possible — much longer than in Europe — partly because they believed that they would not conceive again until the child was weaned and partly because they kept their babies near to them all the time. The baby was carried around on its mother’s back . . . There it passed the day until bedtime . . . At night it shared its mother’s bed, and even when a child grew big enough to require a bed of its own it would continue to sleep in the same room as its parents. The constant company of others probably had its effect in later life, when to be alone was felt to be most undesirable.”

A late 1960s Asahi Shimbun poll of University of Tokyo students, cited by Doi, shows mothers topping the list of individuals the students most respected.

The paradox is plain to anyone familiar with the harsh martial ethos of much of Japan’s history. Amae seems to fit Heian Japan and seems also to fit the unheroic mores of our own day, but the age of the samurai, born of the Minamoto-Heike war and surviving into the 20th century, certainly showed a sterner face to the world.

Inazo Nitobe’s English-language classic “Bushido” (1900) is no doubt a romanticized portrayal of the “way of the warrior” by a nostalgic writer clinging to a vanishing past, but it confirms that, ideally at least, a samurai childhood was no wallow in amae.

“Stories of military exploits were repeated almost before boys left their mother’s breast,” Nitobe writes. “Does a little booby cry for any ache? The mother scolds him in this fashion: ‘What a coward to cry for a trifling pain! What will you do when your arm is cut off in battle? What when you are called upon to commit hara-kiri?’ “

“Parents,” he continues, “with sternness sometimes verging on cruelty, set their children to tasks that called forth all the pluck that was in them . . . Occasional deprivation of food or exposure to cold was considered a highly efficacious test for inuring them to endurance . . . In days when decapitation was public, not only were small boys sent to witness the ghastly scene, but they were made to visit alone the (execution ground) in the darkness of night and there to leave a mark of their visit on the trunkless head.”

Probably the most famous samurai child in Japanese history is Masatsura, son of a semilegendary 14th-century swashbuckler named Kusunoki Masashige. The Kamakura Shogunate founded by the Minamoto clan two centuries earlier was still in place but tottering. Long resentful of its subjection in all but name to the shogun, the Imperial court in Kyoto watched for its chance. Emperor Godaigo was the man to seize it. He was an adult, for one thing, not a child like most of his predecessors. And he was of a firm, unyielding character, determined to rule as well as reign.

Rallying to his cause was the obscure warrior Masashige. His forces were few but his ninja-style tactics were masterful. After many ups and downs they won the day. In 1333, Kamakura was captured. The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) was over.

But Godaigo’s “Restoration” was short-lived. Key supporters soon turned against him. Only Masashige remained loyal. In 1336, vastly outnumbered, he faced the rebels at the Battle of Minato River near today’s Kobe. With him was 10-year-old Masatsura.

“The parting between Masashige and his son used to be included in all elementary school readers and was the subject of a patriotic song . . . prohibited by the Occupation authorities in 1945,” notes historian Ivan Morris (in “The Nobility of Failure,” 1975).

Morris quotes the song: “Wiping away his tears, Masashige calls his son. ‘Your father,’ says he, ‘is bound for Hyogo Bay, and there he will lay down his life. You, Masatsura, have come with me thus far, but now I bid you hurry home.’ “

The boy’s protests are overruled. “Go, Masatsura, back to our village, where your aging mother waits!” Reluctantly, he goes.

The battle was fought, the loyalists defeated. Masashige, samurai that he was, disemboweled himself. His body was found, his head severed and exposed to public view. Then it was sent to his family.

The 14th-century epic “Taiheiki” takes up the story. Masatsura “gazed at his father’s face which had been so completely transformed, and observed his mother’s inconsolable sorrow.” Determined to follow his father in death, Masatsura reaches for his sword. His mother stays him: “Though you have a child’s mind, consider the matter carefully!” He must live, she admonishes him, to fight another day.

Persuaded, he spends the rest of his childhood developing his fighting powers. “He would knock down other boys,” writes Morris, “and, while pretending that he was about to decapitate them, would shout, ‘Thus do I take the head of an enemy of the Court!’ “

In 1347, aged 22, he led a loyalist uprising and committed ritual suicide when it was defeated.

After three centuries of civil wars, suddenly there was peace. Edo Period Japan, after 1603, didn’t quite turn its swords into plowshares, but it did unite under a central government based in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and withdraw from almost all commerce with the outside world, submitting, at times grudgingly, to a kind of warrior’s peace. Samurai remained samurai and as a military caste claimed special privileges, but they no longer fought.

The battlefield gave way to the pleasure quarters.

Nationwide there were 24 of these urban enclaves of officially tolerated prostitution — islands, in a rigidly controlled society, of healthy, ribald, mass, plebeian, exuberant fun.

That’s one view — not the child’s, of course, and the child’s view is relevant because children inevitably were drawn into the life of the quarters. Many were sold into it. Some were accidentally born into it — relatively few, since abortion nipped most quarter pregnancies in the bud. Infanticide claimed most of the rest.

Crushing taxes, frequent crop failure and hopeless indebtedness were the average farmer’s lot in Edo Japan. “Many,” writes the historian Dunn, “were forced to sell their daughters into what amounted to slavery. The brothels and entertainment districts were provided with their women by this means . . . Although there was considerable distress in individual cases, there was no general condemnation of this practice, and in the atmosphere of the times it is probable that the majority of girls found their new life at least no worse than the one they were leaving.”

The system had its defenders well into modern times, the quarters not being abolished until 1946. In 1896, Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito praised as Confucian filial piety the child-prostitute’s “lofty desire to help her poor parents or relations.”

So deep a sense of duty toward parents may well have arisen from a feeling of being lucky to be alive. Abortion and infanticide were “as much a part of the experience of pregnancy as childbirth itself,” writes religious studies scholar William Lindsey (in “Fertility and Pleasure,” 2007).

Infanticide in particular, he says, was widespread enough to depress population growth for 150 years from the early 1700s — a bizarre throwback to the Jomon struggle to survive infancy and an uncanny precursor to today’s scarcity of children. “The question of the child’s fate, ‘to be kept’ or ‘sent back,’ was a standard query that a midwife posed after successfully accomplishing delivery.”

Children belong in school. That is the modern view, more or less unquestioned. Interestingly enough, it was a widespread Edo Period view as well. Schoolchildren were called terako, literally “temple children,” and schools were known as terakoya, though by then they had generally lost their earlier affiliation with temples.

They were private concerns, run in towns by professional teachers, in the countryside usually by retired village elders who taught at least the rudiments of reading, writing and Confucian morality, chiefly filial piety — to such effect that 18th-century Japan, for all its international isolation, was one of the most literate societies in the world. One rough estimate has it that, nationwide, 40 percent of Edo Period boys and 10 percent of girls — of all social classes — attended a terakoya for at least part of their childhood.

Here is the story of one who did not attend — not for lack of desire. Shika Noguchi was born in 1852 into a poverty-stricken farm family in what is now Fukushima Prefecture in rural northern Honshu. She took her first job at age 6 — watching over village children while their parents worked. When the grandmother who raised her fell ill and needed expensive medicine, Shika, at age 12, went into service with a local landowner, whose wife kept her at fieldwork all day and had her weaving straw baskets and sandals late into the night.

The local terakoya class was taught by a Buddhist priest named Unoura. Shika longed to go, but had no time. She approached the priest and begged him to write a hiragana primer for her. With this in hand, late at night, by moonlight, while the landowner’s household slept, she would sit up in the kitchen tracing the characters over and over on a tray sprinkled with ash taken from the fireplace.

We know of Shika because of a subsequent development the little girl could not possibly have imagined — she grew up to become the mother of the world-famous bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928), whose biographers have not failed to give the influence of his indomitable mother its due.

Two years after Noguchi’s birth, 10 years into the modernizing, Westernizing Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japan played host to a British traveler named Isabella Bird. Among the new government’s early reforms was compulsory primary education, enacted in 1872. In her 1885 book “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan,” Bird recorded her impressions of a village school she visited near Tokyo: “At 7 a.m. a drum beats to summon the children to school . . . Too much Europeanized I thought it, and the children looked very uncomfortable sitting on high benches in front of desks, instead of squatting native fashion . . . Obedience is the foundation of the Japanese social order, and with children accustomed to unquestioning obedience at home the teacher has no trouble in securing quietness, attention and docility. There was almost a painful earnestness in the old-fashioned faces which pored over the school-books; even such a rare event as the entrance of a foreigner failed to distract these childish students.”

Would Bird be heartened or horrified to discover how far beyond “docility” Japanese children have evolved since then?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press, 2008). His Web site is at www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com

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