Living in another country is a lesson in the completely subjective nature of societal expectations. How things are done, our perception of what is good, bad or “normal”; we develop these ideas based on the environment we know and unique cultural references, and these can vary widely depending on where we grew up.
It doesn't take long to see immediate differences in our surroundings when we travel – you may remember that I recently wrote about eight things many foreigners find “surprising” on their first trip to Japan – but it often takes much longer to grasp just how deeply rooted a practice is in a given society. For example, long time readers of this blog may recall my piece a few years back about the prevalence of the game ‘rock, papers, scissors' in Japan, a practice I knew about long before but had only then come to the realisation about just how important it is in Japanese society and why. It's been a while since I've elaborated on a Japanese cultural topic, but was prompted to write about children's independence in Japan after a video on the Japanese school commute popped up in my social media feed last week.
Japan's culture of raising independent kids
A mini-documentary by Australia's SBS has been circling the Internet the past week or so that talks about “Japan's independent kids”. It depicts a typical day in the life of a seven-year-old Japanese school girl compared to a 10-year-old Australian school girl. Essentially it shows the Japanese girl getting ready for school, walking to the train station and then taking two trains to get to school in busy Tokyo – all by herself. The girl in the Sydney suburbs munches away on breakfast while her father brushes her hair. He packs her school bag and turns off the lights after her, before driving her to the school gates. The mini-documentary only goes for 8 minutes. Take a look.
While, like anything we research, we can't say these morning routines are representative of every Japanese and Australian family, I'd say that the fundamental cultural mindsets are quite accurate. Whether they walk or take public transport to school or not, Australian children tend to have more things done for them until an older age than Japanese children. I'm going to talk about this topic from the Australian vs. Japan perspective because, firstly, that is what this documentary is about and, secondly, because that is what I know most about, as an Australian who now lives in Japan. However, one could extend this discussion to countries and cultures across the globe, and I'm keen to hear about your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.
My observations come from teaching students in Japan at a range of levels – from pre-kinder, kinder, primary school, junior high school and high school through to university and adults. The schools I have taught at have been a combination of public and private, and range from large classes to one-to-one lessons.
Vastly different cultural mindsets
I still remember very vividly the first time I saw a student I knew on the busy streets of Ikebukuro (an inner city suburb of Tokyo) alone. On weekends when the language school opened early, it was often a matter of weaving one's way through the morning crowds to get to class on time. I was now some distance from the train station where the crowds had petered out and there was just a small gathering of people at the next set of lights. As I stood there waiting for the lights to change, I realised that the kid standing next to me was a student of our school, although I didn't teach him personally. I said “Good morning” and he confidently responded back in English. I looked around to acknowledge his parents, just so they knew I was a teacher and not some random person talking to their son. But there was no one with him. “Where are your parents?” I asked. “Oh, my mum's shopping,” he said matter of factly. I went full-on adult responsibility mode on him. “Are you OK? Do you need help? Do you know where you're going?” “I'm totally fine,” he said. Then the lights changed and he darted across the intersection quicker than I could follow after him in my work heels. He was 4 years old.
Another day, another student. I finish teaching a five year old. I am usually expected to go out and speak to the parents after one-to-one lessons, to tell them how their son or daughter did that day and explain the homework I'd like them to do. But the reception area was empty. “Where are your parents?” I asked. “Oh, they're at home.” “So, how are you going to get home?” “By train.” “By yourself?” He looked at me like I was from another planet. “Yes,” he confirmed. Me: “Will you be OK?” I mean, I feel responsible for this kid. “I know my way.” And off he went into the elevator and on his way home.
Letting kids fall
It took me some time to “let go” of my own cultural preconceptions of what kids can and cannot do in Japan. While my students were not my children, I did have to stop myself from getting “parenty” on them sometimes, like I had to actively remind myself not to step in and help them too much just because kids may not be given similar responsibilities in Australia at that age.
I used to worry that my pre-kinder and kinder class kids would trip and fall on anything and everything around the school and that it would be all my fault if they did. It's not like I or any of my Japanese colleagues didn't take due diligence to prevent anything from happening, but in Japan it's expected that sometimes kids will trip and fall, and instead of making a big deal about it, it's put down to kids working things out for themselves.
Hai and I often describe kids in Japan as ‘rough and tumble'. You should see how disheveled they look half the time from running around all day! Part of being active and doing a lot of things for yourself means you gradually learn what works and what doesn't. And sometimes you fall. I don't know how many times I've seen Japanese kids hurt themselves, and before you can even rush in to help, they're often already on their feet and dusting themselves off.
Lawsuits “waiting to happen”
One of the things we love about exploring the outskirts of Tokyo is all the random play equipment you can find. There's this forested area by a lake not too far from where we live and amongst all the trees we discovered this amazing obstacle course and an epic flying fox. We started climbing around on the ropes course and the first thing that Hai said was, “This is awesome. There is no way this would still be around in Australia.” There were no safety nets or wood chips or anything to keep kids out of this un-monitored fun land.
It reminded me of primary school and this awesome piece of play equipment that we called the “dome”. It was made of interconnected metal bars that we could climb over or swing from underneath. My friends and I would play on it every day at lunch time, and we used to relish the fact that as time went on we'd be able to climb higher and higher. The day we had the confidence to reach the very top felt like a victory. We were so proud of ourselves. I think we talked about it for weeks.
In all the years it was there one kid fell and broke his arm. One. And then we were banned from playing on it and it was eventually removed. It's as if as soon as anything at all happened to someone's kid on school property, the school was to blame and whatever it was had to be banished immediately. It's strange how when kids injure themselves at home, it's an accident or just kids being kids, but anywhere else and fingers start being pointed. It's as if we as a society have gone crazy on the concept of potential lawsuits. We don't seem to place any of the responsibility on the child themselves because we don't think a child has the mental capacity, maturity or whatever to take responsibility for their own actions. Sure, they may not be able to analyse situations from the viewpoint of an adult and I'm not saying we should “blame” a child for making mistakes, but they are far smarter and capable than we often give them credit for.
Learning not to step in
In Japan, parents don't want other adults to help their kids out too much, even if that help is well intended. They want their kids to learn and grow by working things out on their own. This is an understood part of Japanese culture that is evident throughout the school system. Japanese students are given responsibilities that would often be the task of staff or parents in other parts of the world. The students are put into groups who are responsible for certain tasks each day on a rotating basis. They do everything from serving lunch to their classmates to cleaning the toilets. In this respect, they not only learn how to do a variety of things on their own, they also learn about shared responsibility.
They understand from a very young age that if they make a huge mess of the classroom or leave rubbish in the yard, it is they (and/or their peers) who will have to clean it. Therefore they start to learn how their actions impact others around them. In this way, Japanese students are often quick to “self-discipline”. A child doesn't put their dishes away in the correct collection tray or doesn't finish the food they took and watch how quickly one of the on-duty lunch team members snaps them into line. There's a lot I disagree with when it comes to the Japanese education system, but this promotion of self-reliance, self-control and shared responsibility is something I think more children should be exposed to.
One of the cutest things I have ever seen has to be first graders trying to push the lunch trolley down the hall to their classrooms in their first few months of school. You see, students not only serve lunch in Japan, but they are expected to collect the food trolley and dishes from the kitchen and also return the dirty dishes afterwards. As you can imagine, the food trolley isn't light and at my primary school it took ten six-year-olds to get the job done. Without help, they would need to work out how to get it to the classroom on time on behalf of their hungry classmates. They would take their positions around the trolley and start pushing it down the hall. However, they could never seem to be able to push it in a straight line. So the cart would be pushed towards one side of the hall, before they'd switch their momentum to push it towards the other side, slowly inching their way forward in a zigzag down the corridor. Two would often switch off from their positions to let their classmates know how close they were to the wall and when they needed to re-align. Just wait until they get to the classroom and have to turn the trolley through the doorway!
When I first started teaching in Japan, I would offer help to the younger kids when I saw them coming down the corridor, but they would always strongly refuse. I soon got the sense that they felt they would get into trouble if another teacher saw me helping them. I later realised that assisting kids when they are struggling is not necessarily seen as a good thing in Japan; it's seen as robbing them of the opportunity to grow. Perhaps there is a similar sentiment in Australia but, in my opinion, to a far lesser extent. So from then on I'd simply smile when I walked past and encourage them to keep going. To which they would enthusiastically reply that they'd surely do their best! In fact, Japanese children pride themselves on all the things they can do on their own and it's almost considered embarrassing if they can't at least do the basics for themselves in their first year of school.
Encouraging problem solving
Japanese kids aren't “babied” and I think this is one of the main reasons they freak out far less easily in unfamiliar or difficult situations they might find themselves in. I still remember the time when I was seven years old and I lost sight of my mum in a local department store. It wasn't that big and there weren't many people there, but after only 30 seconds of frantically looking around for her, I was already almost on the verge of tears. Not having someone I knew by my side frightened me instantly because I had never been in a situation where I had to problem solve for my own “survival”.
On the flip side, we've had Japanese students as young as four finding themselves lost on the way to English school (some Japanese stations have so many exits!) and instead of having a meltdown they start thinking of their options. They would go to the station office and ask for directions or even call the school on their mobile phones (yes, even kids this age have mobile phones for this very situation) and a staff member would come and get them. They analysed their situation, thought through potential options and then problem-solved. It's almost astonishing to watch.
Why the Japanese school commute works
Children commuting to school or after school activities alone or with peers of the same age is a completely normal part of Japanese society. As the video mentioned, Japan has an extremely low crime rate and if Japan wants its economy to continue to function as it does now, the school commute for children needs to be safe. Getting children to school safely is therefore considered a collective responsibility for all. Just before the kids get out, the school near our house has an announcement that can be heard around the local area, reminding everyone that school children will soon be making their way home. “Let's all make sure they get home safely!”
Of course, children going to school alone is not simply a practical matter of allowing parents to work in regular office jobs. Many Japanese women, in particular, do continue to take on the traditional role of main homemaker even after their children reach school age, so it is not necessarily that the child doesn't have someone at home to accompany them. There is a fundamental cultural notion behind it all. Pushing your child to do something on their own is viewed as helping them to develop. If you listen carefully to what the mother says in the video, she specifically refers to getting children to do tasks that they can achieve. It would be unrealistic and, in my opinion, detrimental to try to make them do something far beyond their current capabilities. It's about giving them a nudge, even when the child themselves thinks they are not ready for it, and giving them the opportunity to realise their potential.
To be clear, I'm not necessarily saying that one way is better than the other. These have been my experiences and I think it is really interesting to examine how culture shapes our societal expectations. But after having seen both sides of the coin, I do see merit in the Japanese viewpoint that children can often do more than we think and that there is value in not being overly worried about them at every turn.
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Tuesday 26th of January 2016
I grew up near Canberra and later near Sydney. I was walking to school by myself in Kindy (age 6) we were only "around the corner" but it did involve crossing 2 (quiet) roads. I remember one time I turned around and went home to get my mum because of some school bullies who lived in the neighbourhood who decided to pick on me that day, but after that I was fine and they eventually left me alone. I was responsible for my younger brother when he started Kindy 3yrs later.
My second primary school was a little further away from home and involved crossing a number of quiet-ish roads and then a main road with traffic lights (always very busy!). That was still without parental supervision (except for the first few days when we moved to make sure we knew the way), and later on bikes with other kids in the suburb - was the best fun ever! I had a fall off the bike on my way to school and thought I broke my arm, but no one panicked and one of them helped me home while the others went on to school. A few of those kids (and their parents) were involved in Scouts so they were also very independent and resourceful from a young age. We're all in our mid- and late-20s now.
I was also baby sitting my younger cousins overnight by myself when I was 13 - try that now and people frown on it. My parents left my brother and I alone on a weekend (one night away) when we were 14 and 11, we stayed up all night and watched TV. Had a list of family friends numbers to ring if we needed help. Again, something frowned on now.
I think it's because people are more risk-averse, and more paranoid to the detriment of a child's development. The way playgrounds are now compared to when I was little are a classic example of that! Organisations can't afford to be sued, or to pay out over expensive insurance claims, and there are many laws and rules that city councils, and state and federal governments put in place to guard against "stupidity" and injury.
I live in NZ now and notice the kids here are a bit more independent than Aussie children I used to look after before I started my career, but there are a lot of cultural differences between European NZers and pasifika or Maori NZers and how their children are expected to behave.
Saturday 26th of September 2015
I grew up in Asia and it was very similar. We got up all by ourselves, got dressed, ate, and took public transportation to school. We were very independent. We would be left home alone without adults or sent to pick up things from the stores within walking distance.
I am a parent now and I would NEVER let my kids be alone, at home or walk to school. Our rides to and from school are the best times. We talk about the day and catch up. I raise my kids like the average American family. To me, that is the better way.
My experience of being independent was not good like it is with the Japanese kids in the video. Maybe Japan is just more superior country. I assumed my parents didn't care about me and they didn't want to be with me. There were lots of bad experiences from getting to school on my own or sometimes with my sister. If you are interested you can read below where I included some of my experiences. Despite that, I didn't act weird or anything. I had fun at school and had many friends. I made good grades. I thought that was just the way things were.
I remember when I moved to the U.S. and saw how sheltered kids were. All that I could think of was how much their parents loved them and were there to protect them.
There is no way I would EVER leave my kids at home alone, or go anywhere without a grown up whom I know very well.
************************************************************************************************************************************* It is way more crowded on the bus than would be allowed here in the U.S. and I remember seeing men rubbing up against women, girls on buses pretending like it was just due to the jerky movement of the bus. I had experienced that many times myself and I would inch away as much as I could. A man tried to follow us home one day and luckily I noticed it and went into a store and he followed us in but we stayed for a long time and eventually he left. We would have been home alone if we went home. I remember being in the rain or in the cold, when sun was already down or in the full sun and 33/34 degree day waiting at the bus stop. Sometimes the buses didn't stop at every stop because they were always so full. So we waited and we waited and we waited. It was so miserable. I remember fantasizing that a Mercedes would stop and the driver would tell me that I was actually from a rich family and he was sent to drive me home just to get through it. There was no locker at school so we had to haul all the books to and from school everyday, which was a torture. I got hit by the side of a car once, and the driver cursed and yelled at me. The adults treated kids like grown ups. No one stops to help you. They yell at you like any other adults. They cheat you for your lunch money, easy target. They molest you, since your parents aren't around to protect you, and right there in the open with people around. No one stops long enough to notice you are not sitting on your dad's lap and that the creep's hands were up your shirt. I was too young to know about molesting then, even though I knew it was weird and wrong. I saw a homeless man pleasuring himself one very early morning on the way to school under a bridge. One ugly man with his arms folded grabbed my breast as he walked by. I screamed but no one even turn their head and he kept walking away.
Jessica - Notes of Nomads
Thursday 1st of October 2015
Hi Gigi, first of all, I want to say how sorry I am to hear of these terrible incidents you experienced while being alone as a child. That should never happen to anyone ever, child or adult.
I can totally see why you've made the decision to bring your kids up the way you do. There is certainly nothing wrong at all with wanting to accompany your kids to school or not wanting to leave them home alone. These are decisions that each parent has to make for themselves. I think that using the car ride to/from school as time to ask about each others' days is really great. A lot of families don't spend nearly enough time checking in with one another. In my family, this was dinner time. The TV was switched off and that was the time we talked about how our day was.
I think the difference I see in your experience to the general Japanese experience is that by sending you to work things out on your own, you felt your parents didn't care about you. While I can't speak for every Japanese family, in Japan this concept of sending your kids on a trip is an ingrained part of the culture and the very act of it is considered to be a true testament of love. I don't think Japanese kids generally feel abandoned by it because every kid is doing the same thing and, as was discussed in the video, the commute is considered safe, therefore the kids don't feel threatened while travelling to/from school.
Of course, if those same parents don't spend time with their children at other times of the day or leave them without the means to deal with a situation appropriately, then that could lead to similar feelings of resentment or abandonment. Everyone wants to feel safe, needed and loved; that's human nature.
I do think that as a society we shouldn't be overly frightened about things that "could" happen around every corner and that independence is an important life skill we can teach our children. In that regard, I think the Japanese have something good going on there. It's not that I think Japan is a superior society, it has pros and cons like everywhere, and I often talk about the not-so-great sides of life in Japan on this blog very openly.
Ultimately, I think it's all about preparing kids for life in a supportive, empowering and, of course, secure environment, and it's really interesting to explore how culture plays such a huge role in influencing what those environments are or should be.
Wednesday 23rd of September 2015
Loved this article. It's both a fascinating look at Japan and an example of how collective responsibility at a young age leads to a mindset of collective responsibility for an entire country.
Absolutely, kids should be taught to clean up after themselves. If they are taught -- as they are in American schools -- that someone else will clean up after them, where is the incentive to be neat? Doesn't this translate, psychologically, into a mindset that lacks both personal responsibility and empathy? I think so. On a larger scale, it translates into corporate greed and lack of concern for the general welfare.
As for walking or making their own way to school, kids should absolutely do that. And if people don't live in a place like Japan, or their kids are younger, the parents should walk with them. Or ride a bike. There was a Dutch study about 3 years ago that found that children who walked or rode their bikes to school had concentration levels at least six months ahead of their peers. It wasn't just the exercise, though -- it had to do with navigating from one place to another.
I hear about more and more ADD/ ADHD kids who are medicated to sit still in class. I bet no small number could be helped if they just walked to school.
Jessica - Notes of Nomads
Thursday 1st of October 2015
Hi Autumn, thanks so much for weighing in. You've brought up some really interesting points in relation to other benefits, such as concentration.
I used to love the commute to school, whether it was walking to the local primary school or later on taking a bus to my high school in town. It was the time in between the rush of getting ready for school and starting a busy day of classes where I could just be for a few long moments, where I didn't need to do anything except to put one foot in front of the other and navigate my way to the classroom. And I can definitely see the benefit in that for mental well being and generally getting ourselves prepared for a day in which we need to concentrate for set periods of time.
It's just like when many adults say that they need a coffee or a few minutes to check their emails before starting a meeting. They are wanting a few minutes to refresh, clear their minds and get mentally prepared for what is to come. Why is it that we think children don't need to do the same?
Thanks so much for bringing up some really interesting points. I would love to see more research done in this area!