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    Child violence in Japan

    Susanna Cornett sent me a link to this Instapundit mini-post about the latest spate of violence committed by Japanese children, and she flatteringly asked me for my thoughts on the issue. She also gave me her own interpretation, which I mostly agree with and will discuss below.

    First, though, I’d like to note that, when you’ve lived in Japan for a while, you start to notice that the same stories surface in American news publications periodically. One of these is, “After suffering years of discrimination and sexual harassment, Japanese working women are laying claim to their rights to be promoted on merit, to work even after they have children, not to be considered eye candy for visitors, and not to have to arrive two hours before the men to sweep, dust, and make tea.”

    A second (the writer Alex Kerr had a whole segment on this in his last book) is, “Japanese youths are known for their school uniforms and conservative grooming, but a recent wave of adventurous teenagers is making dyed hair and body art the funky new norm.”

    Another is, “Unlike their antecedents, the latest crop of slatternly female J-pops stars write their own lyrics and can actually sing!”

    Still another is, “Financial analysts have been shocked and horrified to find that XYZ Bank’s bad debts may total several times the figure it released at the end of the last fiscal year, which raises new questions about the viability of the Japanese economic recovery.”

    And yes, yet another is, “The famed obedience culture in Japanese schools appears to be giving way as disturbed pre-teens take up knives to avenge bullying and insults.”

    Now, of course, none of these things is outright untrue or not worth reporting on. The problem is that journalists like to write stories that read like great novels: setup, conflict, technical climax, dramatic climax, resolution. That predisposes them toward pushing the never before seen! angle, even if the same reporter wrote essentially the same story for the same magazine two years ago. It also gives them a tendency to leave out facts and factors that don’t fit the most compelling narrative arc.

    The WaPo article Instapundit linked to is a good compilation of the more grisly child-on-child crimes that have captured national attention here over the last decade. Here’s Susanna’s take on it and on Glenn Reynolds’s wife’s piece:

    The newspapers, as well as the communities

    they’re reporting on, seem to feel that it’s about anomie (a sense of

    disconnectedness from society) resulting from lack of obvious parental

    affection and the violent video games/movies. Glenn’s wife points to

    building frustration and no one to listen, also a facet of anomie. My

    brother (not in a post, in a private conversation) thought that it was the

    influence of Westernization (the bad bits of it). I tend to think it’s a

    crumbling national culture in the face of changes, where traditional social

    controls have lost much of their power but nothing has swept in to replace

    it – which is actually a fairly classic setup for Durkheimian anomie.

    Westernization *is* part of the force that’s crumbling the old ways, but I

    think it’s also from the inside. And I think part of that is the lack of an

    internalized moral code based on belief in a spiritual being (God), so that

    when the exterior culture crumbles there’s nothing inside to offer moral

    guidance – so you see things like the prostitution for new purses mention in

    the WaPo article, as well as the obviously horrific violence.

    I think the closest we can come to a complete explanation is a synthesis of the points Susanna talks about here. (Well, I take exception to one thing. As a Christian, she understandably sees God as the necessary source of an individual’s moral code; as an atheist, I don’t agree with that part, though I think belief in God is more a positive than a negative force in most people’s lives in practice. In any case, Japanese religion doesn’t have the single Creator with a big, benevolent plan for mankind that we’re used to in Judeo-Christianity. You have the various nature deities, and the spirits of the ancestors, and the manifestations of Buddha, and you do what they say because…well, they’re wiser and more powerful than you are.)

    The post-War Japanese educational system developed to go with the employment system developed to go with the regulatory system. After WWII, the Japanese needed a national goal, and economic advancement became it. This served two main purposes: It rebuilt the wrecked infrastructure and gave the returning soldiers something to do. The idea was to turn citizens into interchangeable units by standardizing their behavior and pushing them towards the mean in intelligence and achievement. That way, the country as a whole could move forward by allocating human resources where needed without impediment. So responsibility for childrearing was in many ways ceded to the school system. Children went to regular public school classes and then cram school. Fathers worked long hours of overtime. Mothers took care of the households (often including in-laws). Everyone was overworked and sleep-deprived, but the children could see prosperity increasing around them, and they could see how proud and purposeful their parents were. Students could see themselves as the next generation to score world-class achievements: the textile-metallurgy boom, the single-minute exchange of dies, the Walkman.

    Now that Japan is no longer poised to take over the global economy, the incentives to conform beyond normal limits don’t exist for a lot of kids. But the school system hasn’t adjusted its relentless do-what-you’re-told-do-what-you’re-told message. Children aren’t taught how to be resilient–the practical principles of morals and ethics that they can adapt to different situations with a little imagination and goodwill added. Additionally, many of them aren’t home enough (remember, 2/3 of Japanese students go to cram school, meaning that they may get home at about 9 or 10 every night) for their parents to teach them good behavior through repetition. So when the vulnerable kids start to go off the rails, there isn’t much to brake them. Naturally, even normal children aren’t infinitely malleable, but most of them are pretty sturdy. The Japanese people I know wouldn’t willingly go through their K-12 experiences again; but despite the hazards along the way, they ultimately became lively, centered, responsible adults.

    And yet, to read reports in the Western press, you get the sense that the streets are a hair’s breadth away from being mobbed by hysterical, X-acto knife-brandishing teens. It’s that aspect that I wish they’d rein in a bit. Japan has social problems that I don’t think are going to improve before they get worse for a while, but I don’t see society collapsing. For one thing, the 30% of the economy that’s world-class competitive is still robust enough to make up for the 70% that serves the domestic market and is plagued by duplication of effort, redundant personnel, and red tape. For another thing, families are slowly finding the benefits in not having Dad ready to drop dead from overwork and Mom driving herself nuts over whether the chambray of her jumper will meet the approval of the rest of the neighborhood housewives. (These are not exaggerations, BTW.)

    Which is to say, Japan is still affluent enough to provide the average student incentive to study hard–not to study like a maniac, but to do well–with the prospect of making a decent living when he finishes school. There’s no more direct conveyor belt from college to company to easy retirement, to be sure, but most people know they’re unlikely to end up in tent villages. And families are rediscovering what it’s like to be involved in the rearing of their children. This transition is proceeding in fits and starts, and there are always dangers involved (the economic threat from China is the most obvious), but I do think it’s happening.

    The big issue, again, is that Japan has not set itself up to help the most emotionally vulnerable children deal with pressure, and now that there are more of them, the problem is correspondingly larger. I’d love to have a fix for that one, but I think that what we can realistically expect is for changes to the relationship between schooling and child-rearing–and therefore improvements–to happen very slowly.

    Added at 21:38: The latest crime just happened Sunday. A 15-year-old boy found that the classmate he wanted to stab wasn’t home, so he murdered the classmate’s mother instead.

    6 Responses to “Child violence in Japan”

    1. Toren says:

      Yes, the repetitiousness of the media reports about Weird Olde Nippon get a bit exasperating (I swear some of those articles are reprints from 15 years ago). Note for the media–enjo kosai is OLD NEWS.
      The current attempt to link “violent manga” with the schoogirl killing is a typical joke. Battle Royale has sold over 7 million copies and one (1) kid who read it has committed murder. What a devastating link of cause and effect!! Shock! Horror!
      I’m not sure about the whole anomie thing. They may be disconnected from society as a whole, but they sure spend a lot of time within their own micro-societies (cell phone, internet, etc). So I guess it depends how much “connection to society” you think is normal. Certainly many young Japanese feel powerless to do anything about their future, but hell, I feel that way too! (Viz. my farewell message on my blog.) An argument could be made that some of the recent extreme subcultures within Japan’s youth are simply a backlash from the old days of “study your ass off while a kid, work your ass off while an adult, get drunk to forget it all.” Now there is the option of saying “To hell with that, I want to LIVE” and being a freeter or whatever. Sure, the pendulum has swung too far for some groups, as it always does, but I think the future for the youth of Japan looks pretty good…once the banks suck it up and write off their bad debts.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Well, we all hope you start feeling powerful enough to get back to blogging soon. :)
      But obviously, I agree with you. It’s worth asking whether violent movies and manga can help push weak-minded people over the edge from contemplating violence to committing it; it’s also worth asking what material should be kept away from children in which age group because, in general, they aren’t mature enough for it. But that isn’t, for the most part, what’s going on here. What’s going on here is the no-sweat, reductive violent-manga-cause-violent-behavior line that lets everyone off the hook.

    3. Japan, violence and anomie

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    5. Thief's Den says:

      The Most Massive Link Dump In Recorded History

      I save a lot of links in my blog surfing, thanks to FeedDemon’s NewsBin feature. Too many. But see, I usually have no time to blog. Thus, these entries are filed away in my newsbin, ported back and forth from home to office computers and back again, ju…

    6. Thief's Den says:

      The Most Massive Link Dump In Recorded History

      I save a lot of links in my blog surfing, thanks to FeedDemon’s NewsBin feature. Too many. But see, I usually have no time to blog. Thus, these entries are filed away in my newsbin, ported back and forth from home to office computers and back again, ju…