National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Childhood in Japan is certainly not getting any easier

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

The girl was 15, the teacher in his early 30s. He recognized her ability, encouraged her, befriended her, seduced her. He took her to a love hotel and said, “This is what grown-ups do.”

The story appeared in the Asahi Shimbun last month in a series on child abuse. The girl is a woman now, age 44, looking back on an adult life of rage, self-hate, broken relationships — the usual fruit of what she went through as a child. “This is what grown-ups do.” Truly, grown-ups know not what they do to the children they do it to.

The teacher is now in his 60s. An Asahi reporter tracked him down. The teacher at first said he didn’t remember the girl. He may not have been lying. What was it to him? A casual encounter, 30 years past. Prodded by the reporter, he said, “If I caused her pain, I am deeply sorry.”

Most adults are not child abusers. Most adults would never knowingly hurt a child. Most Japanese children grow up healthy, happy and unscathed by childhood, to be kind, loving and self-sacrificing parents in turn.

All the same, children are frighteningly vulnerable. Totally dependent and utterly helpless when small, they grow less so only gradually. Against bad parents and bad teachers they are virtually defenseless. In society, which has so much else on its collective mind, they count for little — less and less as their numbers decline.

Children abused, children in poverty and children mowed down by out-of-control vehicles were recurring news items this year. The issue is much larger, however, than specifically nameable evils.

In October, a case of bullying came to light at an elementary school in Kobe. The victims were not children but teachers — young teachers systematically beaten, throttled, force-fed spicy curry and alcohol, and forced to engage in obscene acts by older colleagues whose motives can only be guessed. Stress release? Sadism?

Imagine a school full of small children forced so early in life to confront harsh, seamy reality in the form of their teachers perpetrating and suffering this. What defense does the childish mind have against sheer, naked, uncomprehended terror — the sudden collapse of all trust in the powers that rule their lives?

There seems at first blush something starkly contemporary about the two episodes — sordid incidents reflecting a sordid time. There is that, and yet a remark by a 14th-century priest named Kenko, in a classic work known as the “Tzurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”), reminds us of the timeless dimension: “Some take pleasure in deceiving or frightening or humiliating innocent children. The adult may think nothing of this, since they do it in jest, but the child will experience truly intense feelings of heart-rending fear, shame and rejection.” We deal, in short, with a very ancient theme.

Children born into a society they had no hand in shaping naturally accept it on its own terms. What choice have they? As best they can, they pursue its rewards and avoid its punishments, blaming themselves for whatever evil befalls them. A Japanese child born today will grow up in an environment unique in the history of our species. Never before have there been so few children and so many elderly. Never before has potentially calamitous climate change advanced so rapidly upon so high a civilization. And never before, of course, have children’s toys been so “smart” — smarter, it begins to appear, than the children will ever be themselves.

Descriptions of childhood past seem today innocent and quaint — in a word, childish. Actress Sadako Sawamura (1908-96), in her 1976 memoir “My Asakusa,” recalls, “In the old days, children playing in the alleys of (Tokyo’s) Asakusa had no toys to speak of. … In ‘Playing Streetcar,’ children lined up one behind another, a circle of thin string encircling them as they ran in step. ‘Ting-ting! A streetcar is going.’ That was all there was to this game, but we all ran from one alley to another and forgot the passage of time until dark.”

Further on she observes: “Children are creatures of the outdoors. Compared with children today (1976), who watch television in a centrally heated house, those who romped about in the cold, with bare hands and feet, thickly clad in quilted clothing, were more healthy — both in body and mind.”

The child’s world was no more paradise then than it is now. Sawamura herself had to fight for an education against a family and a society that deemed it unnecessary for girls. Girls in her day were more likely to be sold into more or less refined sexual slavery in the licensed pleasure quarters than sent to school past sixth grade. Our horror at that thought today is itself proof of progress.

Progress once seemed to flow in one direction — to good and better. Now, its pace faster than ever, it sows doubts. Are we generating it, or is it simply happening to us?

Education is key, everyone recognizes that now, and parents steep their children in it from so early an age that it has all but replaced play — but Israeli historian and futurist Yuval Noah Hariri, in his 2017 bestseller “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” writes: “Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, already we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.”

Hariri foresees an emerging “useless class” — half the working-age population unemployed because intelligent computers have made human work redundant.

This, too, is what grown-ups have done to children. Artificial intelligence and climate change will shape their futures in ways unimaginable to the generations that generated them.

“How dare you!” cried Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in September. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood. … You are failing us. … We will not let you get away with this.”

Growing up has never been easy. It’s not getting any easier.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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