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July 5, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

“When I was your age…”

Mie around junior high school-age

(May 28, 1992) 

My second daughter, Mie, 14, tells me I must be getting old because these days I often talk about what I did as a child. Well, I confirm it, I’m not getting younger, and if most of my recent conversations begin with “When I was your age …” I can’t seem to help it.

Often these days I find myself reading the results of some government report concerning the nation’s children that states (after much time, energy and money have been spent) what has been obvious to me for a long time, and what certainly must have been obvious to many others, whether they’re parents or not.

One report of this nature, released by the Ministry of Education, stated, “The amount of time children devote to play and physical exercises is totally inadequate.” No kidding. You don’t have to be a sleuth (or need a research grant) to get this information.

Simple deduction and observation will point it out. If most children are in (or on their way to and from) school, school clubs, extracurricular activities, cram school and piano lessons, six days a week and often on Sundays, play is not the thing that is taking up a lot of their time.

I can remember days when my youngest daughter Lila would come home from elementary school and say there was no one to play with. Her answers to my suggestion that she play with this or that friend were answered with “She/he is at soroban (abacus)/swimming lessons/exercise class/arithmetic drill.”

Although the neighborhood was full of children, many days it would be as quiet as a retirement community – until the kids, toting their little hand-embroidered bags like attaché cases, returned from their different after-school activities. (And it does seem a little, well, strange, that currently children are taught to jump rope and throw a ball, and must be encouraged to go outside to play.)

I wasn’t in this country very long before I noticed that even when small gifts were given to children they were most often pencils, erasers and notebooks. You’ve seen ‘em, all instruments for academic acquisition – they’re cutely disguised with kittens with ribbons on their heads, little children with pink and blue hair who live among the stars, or perhaps a pink rabbit with one floppy ear.

Analysts talk about the “somewhat awkward” conditions of Japanese children, referring to the fact that they are under a lot of pressure to excel in their studies. Many kids are starting to show signs of fatigue and stress not unlike overworked office employees. (Commercial companies selling “medical” pep potions couldn’t be happier, as children also now make up part of the market for their “tonics” and “energy drinks”.)

Another government “white paper” says that young people are becoming more introverted and apathetic. More than half of some junior high school students they surveyed said they didn’t feel like doing anything, and that they didn’t want to grow up, and felt life would be easier if they remained children.

The Ministry of Education report (which took three years of study – the cost is not mentioned) went on to say that children were waited on hand and foot. So they will have plenty of time for schoolwork, many mothers willingly become their “personal servants”. I know most of my neighbors are surprised when they hear my children have little (and I mean little) chores they do around the house. Even these simple tasks (clearing the table after meals, walking the dog, etc.) have a built in waiver – they don’t have to do them when they have tests or an overabundance of homework.

Yeah, I must be getting old, because I remember jumping rope and loving it. And running and throwing balls, playing an endless variety of group games, and being outside until the street lights came on. I remember looking forward to growing up. And, although they are not exactly the most cherished memories of my childhood, I remember washing dishes, and doing laundry, and sweeping and …



Well, I guess those were the good ol’ days – because of the continually declining birthrate, there are so few children I often think of them as an endangered species.

Now to my list osf what occupies children, I can add video games, iPods, mobile phones, internet surfing, and all the rest.

And of course there is a down side to all this over-emphasis on the importance of excelling. When they don’t excel, whether at school or sports, some children become depressed, some despair completely. Not getting into the university of their choice can be devastating. Or even if they do enter these universities they are unhappy to find that there are many others as smart or smarter, and that the real competition is just beginning.


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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