13 MAY 1989, Page 32


Bringing up children

Holding on to mama-san's apron strings

Ian Buruma My daughter is half Japanese. That is to say, her mother, my wife, is Japanese. Not that our daughter is much aware of the cultural ramifications of her existence, for she is under three years old. But there is nothing like raising a child to bring out cultural differences in the parents. When it comes to one's own offspring one tends, despite all one's internationalist ideals, to conform to cultural stereotypes described by anthropologists. Or, at least, the tendency is there to do to your children as one's parents did to you.

According to the experts Japanese mothers treat their small children like little gods. As one of the more readable experts, a pre-war German economist called Kurt Singer, put it in his still delightful book, Mirror, Sword and Jewel:

Japanese children are spared the baneful 'you must not' to such a degree that they may be termed the real gods of the country. They are the centre of the house and of the nation. Clad in the brightest of colours they seem the only beings in Japan to whom freedom of action and radiant looks are granted without stint.

It is true, it is true. While I find myself in the unaccustomed and rather absurd role of projecting the voice of authority, telling our daughter that 'she must not', she remains secure in the knowledge that her mother can be depended on to pick her up, dry her tears, appease her tantrums and wrap her in maternal warmth. Of course, you might say this describes the division of parental labour everywhere. And it is true that most cultural differences are relative. But, to generalise, we control our children early in the West in the hope that this will form a firm sense of right and wrong, which can later be explained by what we hope is reason.

Japanese control is not absent, but it is exercised in a more subtle and perhaps more effective way. It can be summed up in the word abunai, 'dangerous'. Whatever the child might try that is unexpected or potentially troublesome, invites the instant warning of danger. Smothering mothers Instill a rarely articulated but nonetheless always present sense in a child that any- thing that threatens to cut it loose from maternal dependence is dangerous.

One is reminded of Japanese tour groups abroad. I joined one of these once out of curiosity. Everything was organised; the unexpected was virtually ruled out. We were cosseted in every way, all our needs taken care of. If it had been possible to carry us, instead of letting us walk, that service would no doubt have been pro- vided. It was the task of the guide to impress upon his charges, us, that one step in the wrong direction, away from the group, was fraught with danger. We would be cheated, robbed, raped, or worse. Abroad, in short, could never be trusted. We returned to Japan with a sense of great relief to be back in the only safe, honest, polite and clean place in the world. It was like coming home to mother.

Japanese life is a bit like this. There is always a loudspeaker, a uniformed guide, or a Miss Bossy-Boots to remind one to hold on to the rails, not forget one's belongings, keep one's seatbelts fastened, and so on and so forth. The security of being wrapped in the warm cocoon of Japaneseness has a price, however.

The childhood idyll comes to an end when the little gods go to school. There they are taught to conform, to stand in line, to obey authorities without question. This is true to some extent in most places, but few schoolchildren are asked to learn as many rules and conform to them as strictly as Japanese. Kurt Singer observed this, admittedly in even stricter times, the 1930s:

When the student graduates from his uni- versity he is like a tree enclosed within a hard and colourless bark. A mask has been growing on him, made out of discipline, tradition, self-restraint and diffidence. With- in this crust a thin sap of individual life is still mounting and falling, but this flow too seems to be regulated by the tides of the season and the national destiny. . . ,

The American anthropologist Ruth Be- nedict, trying to explain Japanese be- haviour during the war, ascribed much of the social pathology of those days to this traumatic transition from being a pam- pered little divinity to a cog in the wheel of national destiny. There is probably some- thing to this. Certainly the combination of clinging mothers and forced regimentation is not the ideal way to foster rugged individualists.

In fact the transition from maternal care to educational boot camp is not as great as Benedict makes it out to be. Except in the pre-war army, Japanese authority is perva- sive but rarely brutal. Conformism is en- forced more by peer pressure and the almost maternal coercion by apparently benevolent authorities. The Japanese, even during the war, had no use for dictators. The image of the mother or the tour group guide is more apt: one is only safe under their benevolent guidance; only by conforming to the collective will (de- fined, of course, by those same benevolent guides) can one be at ease. -Only by donning the company badge, the regimen- tal cap, the factory uniform, can one gain respect. To be a maverick is not only to court ostracism, it is positively dangerous. The heady taste of freedom can be enjoyed in controlled bursts of socially sanctioned anarchy. The company man goes out with his friends and gets blind drunk, reliving in a blissful hour or two the joy of unfettered childhood, often in the company of a mama-san, who coos and smiles just like mother used to do. In extreme times, more extreme outlets are called for. It is said, for example, that soldiers of the old Imperial Army were positively encouraged by their superiors to rape, loot and kill inferior Asians as a way of letting off steam after the hardships of battle. The nice thing about these orgies is that they are not supposed to leave hard feelings. Neither the drunken salaryman, nor the soldier on a rampage are to be held responsible for their actions. These things happen. Boys will be boys. It is only natural. As long as things revert to normal- ity afterwards. Few people, apart from some diehard Japanese revisionists, would defend Japanese military behaviour during the war — though, alas, too few would actively condemn it either. But many, in Japan as well as outside, believe that the Japanese way of life, from child-raising to company loyalty, has a lot going for it. The YOU must not' way of educating young children in the West is regarded as rather cold- hearted. The strong sense of right and wrong, even the appeal to reason, is seed as harsh, for it does not take into account, warm human feelings and changes 01


mood, to which Japanese claim a unique sensitivity. The Western ideal of indi- vidualism strikes many Japanese as a re- cipe for loneliness. And freedom to make up your own mind, much admired in the Western world, is all very well, but it smacks of selfishness.

The way we educate children has much to do with the way we organise our societies. People of the 'you must not' persuasion, let us say the West, tend to favour societies based on a strong sense of the law, and on impersonal institutions which allow us to thrash out conflicts of interest through political debate. By the same token, business can only be con- ducted through strict adherence to con- tracts. No wonder the Western world, especially the United States, is full of well-paid lawyers.

Japanese culture, one is told, is dif- ferent. Laws, contracts, political parties, lawyers, they exist, it cannot be denied, but they are to be kept to a minimum. For these are cold, impersonal, modern intru- sions in a society that ideally should be based on such warm and human virtues as mutual trust and personal relationships. Those that have strong feelings on this subject like to call Japan matriarchal and the frosty West patriarchal. A variation of this was proposed by the former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who classi- fied the West as a harsh desert civilisation and Japan as a warm, wet monsoon cul- ture.

There is another school of thought, one that is most strongly expressed in Karel van Wolferen's recently published controver- sial book The Enigma of Japanese Power. Van Wolferen does not buy the idea of a warm, wet culture, where human emo- tions, social harmony and mutual trust hold sway. He takes a political view of culture: Japanese are constantly told, through the mass media, by school- teachers, politicians, intellectuals and other assorted experts, that sacrificing personal desires to the group — the school, the company, the nation — is good because it is Japanese. Harmony, warm human feelings, the lack of need for contracts, lawyers and political debate, are all part of a subtle propaganda exercise to justify the Political status quo, which keeps a bureaucratic and industrial elite in control of the population. The connection between culture and Politics is of course like the proverbial Chicken and egg: it is impossible to say with certainty which comes first; their influence is mutual. It is true that most states try to set their citizens in a certain mould and the more authoritarian the state, the more this is true. It is also true that Japanese authorities, as the inheritors of a Confu-

cian tradition and a rather authoritarian variety at that, set particular store by education. The conservative education ministry has even come up with models of 'the ideal Japanese'. Naturally, this ideal citizen is a diffident, self-effacing patriot, who willingly sacrifices his desires to the national destiny, or at least to the destiny of his company.

One might say that this is the Japanese way, and if that makes Japanese happy and who is to say that it doesn't? — who are we to judge? The problem with the, let us call it culturalist view is that it precludes variety and cuts off the possibility of change. Everything described above may be 'Japanese', but by no means all Japanese go along with it. Those that hold unorthodox views are quickly branded communists or 'un-Japanese', or both. Even a foreign observer of the Japanese scene tried to explain to me that the Christian mayor of Nagasaki, who caused a stir by criticising the late emperor's war record, 'understands nothing about Japanese culture'.

Van Wolferen may be going too far when he classifies almost every aspect of Japanese life, from cradle to grave, as yet another example of political propaganda and manipulation. But at least his political view allows for change. Whether the Japanese are content with the way they live is up to them to decide. And there comes the rub: the possibility of choice, of making up one's own mind, of voting the rascals out, of changing jobs if one wants to, all this is precisely what Japanese education tries to drum out of people. What it instills is a fatalistic shrug, a tragic view of life, as something to be born, gracefully, stoically, but something over which one can never have any control.

But this, too, might change. Sacrificing oneself for the nation is not as persuasive an ideal as it once was. And one of the most positive things about the late emper- or's funeral was the variety of opinion it brought out from ordinary people, on television, in letter columns, even in signa- ture campaigns supporting the brave mayor of Nagasaki. These are good signs, for only when the Japanese wake up to the fact that they have a choice in their destiny can they have a functioning democracy and then, one day, who knows, even Abroad may seem less dangerous.

Nigella Lawson's Japanese restaurant re- view appears on page 50.