Children are the mirrors of our society. They are the first ones to sense the hypocrisy of the adult world. But most of them do not have the proper means to make their voices heard or have themselves taken seriously. Not all of them are good at verbally articulating their feelings. And when their feelings of doubt, frustration and anger toward adults continue to be suppressed, some turn to violence.
Since a 17-year-old high-school student murdered his neighbor and another 17-year-old hijacked a bus, killing one passenger, the whole nation has been in a state of shock. Juvenile crime is now on a serious increase.
Today’s teenagers are now viewed as potentially dangerous. When one of the boys arrested for murder reportedly said, “I wanted to have the experience of killing a human being,” his words made many people view teenagers in general as incomprehensible aliens. But they are not creatures from other planets. They are the products of an environment that Japanese society has created over the last several decades. What we are witnessing today may be the desperate cries of children whose healthy development has been hampered by the society that adults have created.
Among the various agents of socialization, including schools, peer groups and the media, family no doubt has the most significant influence on the shaping of teenage lives. Their relationship with their parents determines their basic values and views of the world.
Parents are usually the first ones to give children fundamental ideas on what is important in life and how one should relate to others. If a child has a strong sense of bonding with his or her family and community, he or she normally tries to conform with social norms and will not easily go astray. Even in the midst of extreme frustration, a child’s sense of attachment to parents or involvement with the family can often act as a brake on negative action. When children appear to act crazy, it may be because they do not perceive their family to have a controlling impact on their behavior.
What has happened to the family’s role of providing children with security, discipline and morality? Most parents of today’s teenagers belong to the postwar baby-boomer generation, and grew up being exposed to a new set of values emphasizing economic success and material gains. Thanks to the hard work of their own parents’ generation, Japan achieved remarkable affluence.
At the same time, Japan experienced an unprecedented wave of urbanization and industrialization. The trend toward nuclear families brought with it a new pattern of family dynamics that was centered around the mother-child relationship and the weak presence of fathers. Material wealth became a dominant value, even if its attainment meant the sacrifice of personal lives.
Families got used to having an “absent father” who had little energy left after devoting himself to the company to be a good provider for the family. And in the newly created democratic and egalitarian society, it was believed that regardless of background, anyone could achieve wealth and status if they worked hard. As a result, the key to children’s future became a good education, and the passport to success was a diploma from a prestigious university. Therefore, many parents today primarily care about their children’s academic success. As long as their children study, other things have become secondary, or do not even matter, at home.
In addition, today’s parents never learned how to maintain a good balance of power within the family. In Japan, a consensus has always existed on the role mothers should play in their children’s lives. But the father’s role fell into confusion in the postwar period. The once strong status of fathers at home and in society was suddenly lost in Japan’s new found democracy.
While I do not support the prewar patriarchal family system, the importance of a father’s role in disciplining children cannot be over-emphasized. A strong father figure, especially for boys, works as a controlling factor against unreasonable behavior, such as violence. When people grow up without a strong father’s presence, it becomes difficult for them to allow for a significant role for the father when they have their own children.
Though a father might not have been easily available for many children in the postwar years, at least he had status as a good provider. He was a symbol of what Japanese society represented — hard work, sacrifice and production. But today, in the midst of a prolonged recession, even this position is becoming shaky. In fact, parents themselves are losing confidence and are confused. Unable to stand firm and confront the young generation in order to show direction, how many adults today can confidently respond to young people when they ask, “Why is life worth living?”
What can we do now? We have to create a system that enables much stronger links among families, mental health professions and law enforcement. Of course, it is not easy. But since Japanese families have become so fragile, society has to intervene and support them more aggressively.
Economic development in Japan was so remarkable and fast that it could not be achieved without various costs. Some were more tangible: overcrowded urban environments, destruction of nature and pollution. These dark sides of development are relatively easy to deal with compared to intangible costs, such as the damage inflicted upon the family structure. It may have taken two generations for the psychological cost of social “progress” to fully surface.