National / Media | Japan Pulse

Social media helps Japan's embattled parents connect over schools' closure

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recommendation that all elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan close through the end of their April spring break in order to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus caught nearly everyone in the country off guard when the news broke in late February.

No demographic was perhaps more surprised than the parents of school-aged children. The suddenness of the announcement coupled with confusion over what exactly their school’s board of education would end up doing forced many to scramble. For some working families and single-parent households, this meant they needed to find alternative child care solutions in March or spend more time at home.

Leave it to a Japanese mascot, Gunma-chan of Gunma Prefecture, to sum up the dilemma in a single tweet. The first photo in the post featured a picture of the horse-themed mascot frolicking in a field, accompanied by a caption that read, “How kids react to schools being closed.” In a second image, Gunma-chan cowers in a corner, which is supposedly “how parents react to schools being closed.”

Twitter and other social media platforms, however, have provided more than just relatable memes for parents. In the early days of the school closures, these platforms have given those suddenly forced to entertain children all day a steady stream of ideas courtesy of other adults or brands sensing an opportunity.

It’s a nice counter to the more depressing side of the internet during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has seen price gouging over face masks and a steady stream of fake news. Here’s an example of the web actually helping people out in an unprecedented situation.

Many sites have started compiling resources that parents can use to help in taking care of their children during the day. BuzzFeed Japan not only extensively covered the initial days of school closures, it also provided a list of online education and entertainment services that families could turn to during this impromptu break. Impress Watch published something similar, albeit with more content devoted to physical spaces that are open for children.

One of the most frequent suggestions — one that’s certainly of interest to those who see a potential silver lining in the coronavirus outbreak — was platforms providing libraries of manga and anime free of charge during the break. Even established publishers such as Weekly Shonen Jump made their archives available. Besides being helpful, it points toward an embrace of digital content spurred on by COVID-19.

One of the best sources of advice came from other parents via a lengthy Twitter hashtag: #休校中におすすめの過ごし方 (kyūkō-chū ni osusume no sugoshikata). Posts under this hashtag include ideas on how to keep children occupied at home. Suggestions range from creating their own versions of KidZania and a “linguistic Olympics” activity involving a mix of languages to miniature arts and crafts. So many miniatures.

Some parents used the hashtag as a way to show that they imparted household lessons to their children while they were home. Others showed off intricate homemade flower decorations they made together with their little ones. Matome sites compiled the best suggestions in an easy-to-read list.

It’s a crowdsourced resource for easy-to-do activities between people impacted by the government’s surprise recommendation, while also being an outlet for parents to showcase their creativity.

Most surprising of all, however, is that businesses have also jumped on the bandwagon and not spoiled the fun. Rather than piggyback on the trend in the semi-ironic way so many U.S. social media accounts do, Japanese social media managers simply offered up suggestions relating to the products they sell.

National Geographic Japan, for instance, shared a video showing how to turn melted ice cream into bread using a microwave. Candy company Jintan suggested children count how many sweets were in one bottle of its flagship offering. Games company Sega didn’t even offer a suggestion, it just linked to an article that did. The only slight wink came via the official Japanese account for film franchise “John Wick,” which suggested students over the age of 18 watch its hyper-violent (and hyper-entertaining) movies to stave off boredom.

Part of the charm of such hashtags and relatable articles is how they remind parents that they aren’t alone in this challenge. The government’s call undoubtedly came as a shock, and that pushed many families into difficult situations requiring tough decisions.

Social media, though, has not only given them ways to make sure the next few weeks pass a little easier, it also reminds users that thousands of people across the nation are trying to deal with the same issues.

Online spaces can often feel lonely but, in this case, they’re helping users to connect, often via ideas based around arts and crafts.

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