It would be interesting, if only for a moment, to see the world through a 6-year-old’s eyes. We all did once, of course, but that view is faded if not lost. First-hand descriptions are available but unreliable. A child’s vocabulary goes only so far. Reality outstrips it. It outstrips ours, too.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a good way to start a conversation with a child. Even the youngest children have thoughts on the subject. Kuraray, a manufacturer of synthetic leather for school backpacks, has been putting that question to Japanese first-graders since 1999. This year the top pick among boys was police officer, topping athlete for the first time.
Girls, too, though less eagerly, feel drawn to police work. It came in sixth with them, well behind pastry cook, the perennial favorite, but ahead of doctor, teacher, beautician and nursery school teacher.
Kuraray ventures no interpretation. That needn’t stop us. Might it be that young children sense heightened disorder in their environment and subconsciously want to set it right?
COVID-19 is the obvious culprit — it touches everyone; it could strike anyone, anytime; it’s the pathogenic equivalent of an indiscriminate terrorist attack, scarcely less frightening. An online poll conducted last year by Japan’s National Center for Child Health and Development detected abnormal stress among 72% of children. They “felt bad,” couldn’t concentrate. Shame as well as fear figures in this: a third of the children said they would keep it secret if they or a family member were infected.
That’s not the whole story, far from it. Children are resilient to a degree that leaves adults reeling. One poll tells one story, another tells another. Last December, the education company Benesse asked Japanese elementary school students to choose a kanji character summing up 2020 — year of emergency declarations, school closures, forced isolation and other plague-related assaults on the psyche. The top choice was the kanji used in warai (laughter), just ahead of the runner-up shiawase (happiness). A child’s mind is mysterious indeed.
Psychiatrist Hideki Wada, in a recently published mook titled “How to Relieve Stress,” says of children that they “have no tolerance for ambiguity; they want everything to be black or white.” It makes us wonder how we ourselves ever survived childhood, or how anyone does, given life’s incurable ambiguity.
Wada doesn’t mention children’s ability — not infinite and often strained to the breaking point — to turn the world into a playground. The fictionalized war memoir “A Boy Called H” by Kappa Senoh (1997) shows the protagonist, age roughly 10, assimilating the ghastly reality of war, circa 1940. There’d been a directive from the Home Ministry — no English; that was the enemy language; English baseball terms like “pitcher” and “catcher” were replaced with unfamiliar Japanese equivalents. “H and his friends were laughing about such things as they played baseball.”
Of Afghanistan, as ravaged a country as has ever been, the Afghan American novelist Khaled Hosseini wrote in his 2003 bestseller “The Kite Runner,” “There are a lot of children in Afghanistan but little childhood.” The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, whose rule from 1996 to 2001 the novel describes, rules again now. In between, the nation remade itself, Japan assisting. Girls went to school, women to work. Something like normal life, as the world understands it, resumed.
Japan donated funds and hosted two aid conferences, in 2002 and 2012. Reconstruction was impressive but flawed. Journalist Mika Funakoshi, reporting for Sunday Mainichi magazine (Sept. 26), saw signs everywhere of the rich growing richer while the poor languished in poverty. Her companion and guide over the years was veteran photojournalist Hiromi Yasui. Married to an Afghan and fluent in one of the local languages, Yasui was the only Japanese national evacuated by the Self Defense Forces.
That was far in the future in 2016, when she and Funakoshi walked through Kabul looking for hopeful signs. They were everywhere, though security was fragile and you had to constantly be on your guard against you knew not what.
Two young girls they met — their ages are not given — reflected the spirit of the time and place. “There won’t be peace in our lifetime,” Funakoshi quotes them as saying, “but we want to do everything we can for the next generation.”
Not since young H’s day have Japanese kids experienced anything comparable to what Afghan children are going through. Still, their lot is not an easy one. Even younger kids know in a general way what’s going on in the world — or at least that something is. COVID-19 affects even those it does not infect; global warming threatens the future that will be the children’s present.
There is a sense of helplessness among Japanese youth that is measurable, however tentatively and imprecisely. A 2018 poll of seven nations by Japan’s Cabinet Office asked people aged 13 to 29 how they feel about politics. To start with: “How interested are you in the politics of your country?” “Not at all,” said 20.2% of Japanese, topping the list. There’s a broad noncommittal middle swath, and then, “Very much,” said 12.2% of Japanese — least among the seven.
Answers to a second question are more telling still. “What is your response to the statement: ‘I can help toward solving society’s problems’?” “I don’t think so,” said 19% of Japanese, again topping the negative; as against 10.8%, ranking last, who said they do think so.
The problem is said to be educational. Politics is rarely taught in Japanese schools, or discussed in Japanese families. How different in most other democracies. A discussion of the subject between Japanese and American youth might light sparks — 43.9% of young Americans think they can make a difference, and presumably intend to.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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