Glimpses of Culture Through Childrearing


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.

Next up, Madogiwa Misfits and the Power of Peer Pressure.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


9 responses to “Glimpses of Culture Through Childrearing

  1. Sadly, I hadn’t read Doi’s book until after being in a tumultuous relationship with a Japanese woman. (Not sure it would have helped–it sure wouldn’t have hurt..)

    It is perhaps fair to say that the ‘Anatomy of Dependence’ (amaeru) is a significant part of adult Japanese folks as well, no?

    Any unsuspecting gaijin-dude enamored of the lovely Japanese wahinee would do well to get hip.

    ..well, unless of course he wants his head handed to him by that same demure flower. (And how does this play out for the rarer white gal-Japanese dude scenario, I wonder?)

    Then too, I’ve seen many gaijin dudes lacking your insight wearing hardened decapitation neck covers–paired with dull-bladed women. (metaphorically speaking) –not a happy sight.

    It’s a shame, when they just needed to learn the appropriate time to grovel.

    (Stated in my western terms and possibly mis-characterized–I leave it to Dr. Tim for capable analysis. )

    ps- speaking of Japanese childrearing, I once watched this tv program where Japanese mothers were segregated from their toddlers who were in another televised room getting the sh*t scared out of them by this monster character. The tv audience and the sequestered mothers had a good ol’ belly laugh while the little toddlers screamed bloody murder. It was weird.

  2. Interesting,

    My wife is Half-Japanese and she is very much the “Disciplinarian” in this family.

    She was brought up with a VERY strict father.

    I was raised by a single-mother who did her best to control me. I wonder if this has a direct effect on the way I very rarely discipline my own son now.

    Either that… or I’m very lucky that I can send him off to his mother when he starts acting up. A quick… “You want me to tell your mom what your doing” is often enough to shape my 4 year old up so that I don’t even have to do anything more then that verbal threat.

    And as far as my wife being half Japanese… I guess she doesn’t take that into account when it’s time to give “Lickins” as she calls them!


  3. Interesting observations Damon.

    Keep in mind that local Japanese have a culture that’s very distinct from traditional Japanese culture. It’s not always fair to compare, although it can provide insights into the roots of the Big Island’s Japanese American population. Lots of interesting little “gifts” from Japan–like the expression “chicken skin”. On the mainland we say “goose bumps”, but local Hawaii lingo is a direct translation from the Japanese expression “tori-hada”–chicken skin!

    No doubt Japanese culture has had a profound impact on local culture, but the local Japanese took the mother-culture and “Hawaiianized” it (for lack of a better term). So the roots are there, yet differences abound.

    On the one hand, your wife-as-disciplinarian matches the Japan parenting model: most Japanese mothers are in charge of the discipline while dad stays at work all day, ignoring the kids for the most part, indulging them on the rare occasion he’s at home…that’s how it used to be, anyway.

    On the other hand, Japanese mothers can be extremely permissive with young children. Japanese grandparents are even worse. They forgive just about anything. I remember while driving from Chicago to Tennessee, Japanese grandma begging me to let my then 3-year-old son out of his child-restraint seat because…he was crying and wanted out. Of course I said no, but Japanese grandma sat in the back seat, balling her eyes out because I refused to indulge precious grandson. Interestingly, from a Japanese point of view, Kurumi and I were considered overly strict parents. From an American point of view (mom and siblings), we were too permissive. I see this as proof that we employed a meet-halfway-cross-cultural approach.

    Sounds like your wife has the American (Hawaiian?) disciplinarian ethic. So does mine and (believe it or not) so do I.

    My wife, a graduate of one of Japan’s toughest physical fitness universities (Nihon Taiiku Daigaku) is “old school”. We weren’t into hitting our children, but were always quick and decisive from a very young age when they were disrespectful or unruly. We made them do a lot of “reflecting” in their rooms starting from a young age. And you know what? They both turned out to be great young men. (Sorry for bragging here.)

    Sounds like Samurai Wife would get along well with your Better-Half…on second thought we should probably keep them apart; sounds like a dangerous combination capable of taking over the world. I shudder to think about it…..huhuhuhu

  4. Darren,

    As you implied, the “amaeru” concept permeates Japanese society through adulthood. As a collectivist culture, it makes sense that Japanese would value INTERdependence over INdependence. And it makes sense that individualistic Americans would value the latter.

    But I also think there are generational considerations. The over-fifty generation in Japan is much more self-reliant and independent as a whole than ensuing generations born into affluence, because this generation survived the hunger and poverty that came with Japan’s defeat in the war. For many Japanese, hard times lasted through the 1950s, well into the 60s for some…similar comparison, I think, to my depression-era father, versus the spoiled boomer generation that I’m undeniably part of (born in 1958).

    But most important…so glad you got out of that relationship in one piece. It is indeed a cautionary tale for those unsuspecting non-Japanese dudes out there hoping to pursue a “demure Japanese flower”. Yeah, you think you’re hunting them…you soon discover you’re being trapped 😮

  5. Aloha Tim! Well written and insightful post…as always.

    Our four children (American husband/Japanese wife) were raised in rural Japan during their pre-school/kindergarten/elementary school ages.

    During the summer holidays we would send them to the grandparents in Oregon.

    I remember vividly, when they returned from Oregon they were standing oh so tall, had good eye contact with everyone, were vocally curious, were very positive and “can do” in terms of making decisions for themselves.

    Then back into the Japanese school system and gradually they carried themselves “smaller”, avoided eye contact, became vocally incurious, became very indecisive…and defintely were not going to take the risk of making a decision on their own.

    I remember at the beginning of one school break my fourth grader son brought home 25 “what you can’t do on your school holiday” list…

    On the flip side, I think the Japanese pre-school system is superb, particularly the “yochiens”…as an ESL teacher at 25 different yochien’s I was always impressed at the very supportive environment that allowed children to be “all that they can be”….

    One respected “encho” told me that the only people holding back yochien students are their parents….

    I totally agree that how one is raised has a major impact on their pysche as an adult…and look forward to your upcoming piece on the Japanese male decision making process….

  6. Damon, interesting link. It supports what I’ve known intuitively for years. This is one of the main reasons why my wife and I raised both our sons in a bilingual environment. (Also, I had to struggle, study and sweat to learn Japanese at the tender age of 21–didn’t want them to go through the same–so we chose to give them the bilingual “gift”. )

    Not saying our kids are geniuses, but both are well-adjusted, good with the written word, and overall have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. Thanks to this “gift”, my older son is doing well in Japan, and (so far) his bilingual skills are keeping him employed.

  7. Totally agree with Grif there – up till about junior high, the Japanese education system is superb – and from then on, when the social conditioning starts getting a bit too much, it may be time to consider an alternative.

    As for the original article – Tim, I think you may find huge differences between families, particularly urban and rural ones, within Japan – I’ve been fascinated, and still am, at the huge differences between my wife’s education (fukui rice farming family) and that of many of my tokyoite friends – the differences couldn’t be more vast if they were raised on different planets, let alone countries.

    And yes, I agree, mixed families tend to enjoy the best of both worlds culturally and education-wise – if and when we’re willing to learn from each other, that is. Not always a given.

    • Thanks for chiming in Ziv. I agree there’s variation that needs to be acknowledged, and Japan certainly has its share. But that’s sort of assumed in any discussion I do on culture. (My unspoken boilerplate disclaimer: culture is about tendencies not absolutes; variation exists within any culture, etc.)

      That said, my wife is from Shizuoka not Tokyo. Although I would never say she is “typical” by any stretch.

      [Edited to add] Variation is an interesting theme, especially in Japan! I think the variation of Japanese dialects alone is indicative of just how much differences exist (and yet they can all communicate!). So it makes perfect sense that cultural variation (sub-cultures) would reflect the same level of variation seen in language. So now I’m curious: How do parents discipline their children in your neck of the woods differently than Tokyo or Shizuoka? And how much of that might also be generational differences?

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