Japanese discipline their children in ways a Westerner might never imagine. I’ll preface this post by saying that children in Japan are generally spoiled by American standards, at least until they hit school age. Most will then spend the next 12 years in the Japanese school system getting hammered into submission (admittedly more so in the olden days than the present).
Spoiling children to the outrageous extreme practiced in Japan is a phenomenon Japanese psychologists call “amae”: the notion that people, especially children, exist to be indulged by parents, grandparents, bosses and friends. Some believe this mindset has created a generation of helpless men and women who have had everything handed to them throughout their lives. Of course I know many exceptions to this tendency, but the phenomenon is well known and accepted in Japan. (For those interested, check out The Anatomy of Dependence by Takeo Doi.)
A former college professor once went as far as saying that Japanese society practiced “child worship.” He offered as evidence, the popularity of Japan’s annual high school baseball tournament held in the fall, called “Koshien”. During this event the whole country comes to a standstill to adore the hard-working, pure-hearted samurai warriors playing their hearts out on the sacred baseball diamond. Tears are spilled–especially for the losers–who are worshiped for their wrenchingly unfulfilled efforts.
How far will Japanese parents go to appease their children? I once watched in disbelief as a little Japanese boy (I’m guessing about 5 years old) punched his pregnant mother on a Tokyo rush-hour train because she was sitting down and he couldn’t. Amazingly the mom gave up her seat to the boy, proving that Japanese mothers can be selfless to a fault.
In contrast, in my culture, mom would’ve used the situation as an opportunity to teach me respect and good manners. And once dad found out that I had violated one of his uncompromising rules, it would’ve been a spanking for sure, likely my last infraction of that rule.
Of course my generation believes (at least in principle) that it’s cruel and unenlightened to strike or verbally abuse children. And although traditional Japanese culture would absolutely condone my father’s use of force, it has a much more powerful weapon in its arsenal than the mighty stick: in a word, ostracism. Push the offending party out of the group in Japan, and your problem is solved. Or at least swept under the rug.
Here’s a good cross-cultural example to illustrate how profoundly cultural values affect our behavior–even how we discipline our children.
A Case Study of Two Naughty Children: Tim & Kurumi
I mentioned to my Japanese wife years ago that when I got in trouble as a child, my parents would “ground” me, or “forbid me to leave home.”
Kurumi found this fascinating. “That’s really interesting,” she said thoughtfully. “Because when I was a naughty girl, my mother used to push me outside the house and lock the door. I would cry and pound on the door, begging my mom to let me in.”
Without thinking I said: “I wish I had your mother, it would’ve worked out well for me!”
What Does It Mean?
As you can see, opposite techniques are being employed in our respective cultures to achieve the same result: disciplining the child.
But if you look below the surface and focus on the essence of what’s happening, both cultures are really doing the same thing: denying the child something he or she values. That’s why it’s an unpleasant experience–indeed the whole point of punishment in the first place!
In my case, my parents were denying me the sacred values of freedom and independence, the pleasure of escaping house confinement to hang with friends far away from home.
In Kurumi’s case, her parents were denying her the all-important value in Japanese society on belonging. The punishment makes sense in light of Japan’s collective culture, where one’s identity is tethered to the group; for in Japanese society the individual is not a stand-alone entity, rather a mere “fraction of the group.” Indeed in Japan one is not whole without a group affiliation. Ostracism is a powerful way to punish those who desire to belong, and it has widespread use in the modern Japanese workplace as well.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009