July 24, 2009 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times
TOKYO — “In America, don’t lay even a finger on anyone,” I tell my 10-year-old son as I pack his bags for summer camp in the U.S. I’m trying to reprogram him so he doesn’t casually shove another child in a manner common on playgrounds here. One mischievous push, I worry, would be condemned in America as a strike of violence.
Getting Yataro ready for his first sleep-away camp overseas is turning out to be much more than counting T-shirts and towels. I’m having to review the way children interact here to see which behaviors would go against American codes of conduct. American parents have higher standards than Japanese when it comes to acceptable behavior among children.
Take “kancho” for instance, a popular prank where kids creep up on and poke each other with pointed finger in the behind, shouting “kancho!” or enema. That would likely have the camp counselors in America alleging sexual abuse.
Kancho certainly isn’t encouraged in Japan — a friend of mine is convinced her daughter failed a preschool entrance exam because she playfully jabbed her mother in the rear during the interview. But Japanese parents usually bestow only a mild rebuke.
Japanese are similarly relaxed about children’s tussles. When Yataro was lining up to enter the swimming pool at school recently, the boy behind him pushed him in and called him blond. The remark was a sneer against Yataro’s dark brown coif, just a shade lighter than the common black. Not a big deal here, and Yataro could care less. In America, I bet that scuffle would have warranted a lecture on safety, empathy and racial tolerance.
My 12-year-old nephew, visiting Tokyo from New York, described the coarse exchanges among children here this way. “If you make an error in a baseball game in the U.S., they’ll say ‘good try’ or something like that. But in Japan, they’ll say ‘stop screwing up.'” He added, “It doesn’t mean they’re not your friends.”
Teachers aren’t big on positive reenforcement either. Yataro’s penmanship notebook is full of comments like “how come you don’t fix this?” slathered in bold felt tip across pages of painstakingly written letters. If the English language teacher at camp so much as compliments Yataro, he’ll mistakenly think he’s mastered the language.
As an anxious mother of a first-time camper, I’ve had long exchanges with the camp director. “Yataro is never going to be alone,” he assured me at one point. “Except of course when he goes to the bathroom,” he added with emphasis. That got me worried about the relaxed standards of modesty among Japanese children. Right now, Yataro wouldn’t think twice about barging in on someone in a shower stall if he needed something.
This is, after all, the land of the communal bath. Up through age eight, the boys and girls and teacher from Yataro’s class bathed together on school trips. The school photographer even took a group photo in the tub. There’s Yataro, beaming among his friends, completely oblivious to his nudity.
It may seem like Japanese give their children more leeway, but a look at the camp schedule reveals otherwise. Just before going to the U.S., Yataro attended a six-day camp from his school. That schedule had only one 30 minute slot of free time in the entire program — and even that section actually said “free or study time,” lest the children think they could go wild. In the American camp, the most common entry, listed several times a day, is “choose your own sport.”
In fact, Yataro will be offered many choices in the U.S. He will have a chit card with which he can buy things at a camp store or shop during excursions. He can eat ice cream in his room once a week if he wants. So in addition to hammering home the items on my growing list of don’ts, I must impart to Yataro the concept of freedom and accompanying responsibility.
This is all a lot to fathom before camp starts next week. I might even have to modify my own behavior. Japanese don’t bother much with reasoning when scolding children. We denounce and shame. “Why are you so stupid? Everyone is staring at us,” I might say if Yataro is slow getting out of the car. Like my nephew would say, it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.