Who’s the nation of 12-year-olds?

Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously said of Japan after the war had ended:

“Measured by the standards of modern civilization, [Japan] would be like a boy of twelve as compared with [the Anglo-Saxon] development of 45 years,”

which, though clearly a (condescending but not ungenerous) comment on the maturity of Japanese civilization, has been widely misinterpreted as MacArthur asserting all Japanese had the emotional development of Western 12-year-olds, which was itself also a popular wartime psychoanalytic diagnosis of the enemy.  In a casual proof of several aspects of meme theory, this “Japanese are children” interpretation has spread to be heard and grunted in agreement at by generations of English speakers in Japan.

I suppose I’m in the relatively small demographic of English speakers who have been in Japan long enough to experience extended culture shock on visits home, and I can say that modern Japanese would find a lot of evidence to support a hypothetical similar Hideki Tojo quote about the USA.  Yes, Americans are childish by Japanese standards.  There is in fact a mutual childish-lookingness (hooray for suffixes) which I will call the Greater Pacific Reciprocal Immaturity Loop.

I was once, and at times revisit being, an American child.  From this experience, I can say that in general American children are expected to:

  • Listen to their superiors
  • Act respectfully in public
  • Avoid disturbing others in public
  • Depend on their elders for validation
  • Ask when in doubt rather than plow confidently ahead

Note that I’m not saying children are this way, just that American parents in general consider polite but dependent children something to be desired.  And yes, these are traits that are very common in Japanese adults, especially not bothering other people, which would probably be in the Constitution if the Constitution hadn’t been written by Americans.  And when not observed, these traits are still held up as examples of good behavior.

On the other hand, Japanese children are expected to:

  • Show exuberance (genki), which is prized above obedience or humility
  • Be openly emotional
  • Display willfulness
  • Disturb others (who are expected to tolerate the disturbance) in public
  • Act out rather than submit to group behavior (shūdankōdō)
  • Depend on parents for emotional support, not for discipline

A cliché among English teachers in Japan is the shock on discovering that Japanese children are kind of a Mr. Hyde to the adults’ Dr. Jekyll.  The ideology in the US seems to be that children are born dependent and need to be strictly controlled until they learn to live free; and in Japan that children are born free but need to be brought into society’s embrace through education and close emotional bonds with authority figures.  This also explains the moralizing component that education often has here – homeroom teachers are responsible for their pupils’ behavior even after school hours, and “homeschooled” is synonymous with “uneducated”.  Someone smarter than me has made this point as well but unfortunately I’ve lost the citation – perhaps Rohlen and Letendre or Doi.  Anyway the result of this ideology is that Japanese children are generally not expected to “behave” in public; if you want to see Japanese children playing hide and seek the best place to go is the supermarket.  Public parks are a good place to see the color beige.

So when you land in the US and the first people you see at the airport are customs officials laughing with each other and oversharing with the people they’re waving through customs (“Where are you staying? Oh, my wife and I had our honeymoon there”), it certainly doesn’t remind one of the airport one has just left in Japan, with its solemn politeness and somehow-alienating helpfulness.  It reminds you more of an elementary school, the last place laughter can be heard in an educational setting in Japan before the children’s individuality is ground up and baked into traditional round cakes.

When bitten into, it produces the sound of a soul dying of neglect

The US is not the global standard for how people ought to act at different stages of their lives.  Yes, Japanese adults can seem weirdly lacking in self-esteem and as socially awkward as feral children that were abused by their wolf-parents, but American adults are often selfish to the point that you wonder if American society would be better described as a temporary truce between 300 million people.  The inability of many people to accept negative feedback, instead looking for a new audience that understands how awesome they are, is particularly troubling, as someone who’s hoping to work in education there.  Maybe my experience in working with Japanese children will prove more useful than I imagined.


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