Tuesday, 13 July 2010

McChildhood and the real McCoy

What happened when we asked local children where they would like to live when they grow up.

The hydro-electric dams across the valley were unexpectedly popular

At a recent after school club session we decided to ask the children (aged 7 to 9) to think about where they thought they might like to live when they grew up - here in Kaneyamamachi, in a nearby town or city like Wakamatsu, or in Tokyo. It is important that children are involved in thinking about this, as by the time they reach adulthood the exodus from the countryside will effect them more than anyone. We used a decision line method, with two opposing options at each end - the children were asked to stand where they would like to live. They then gave their reasons for standing where they did, and afterwards made drawings of what they liked about where they chose.  The session was enlivened by the presence of a film crew from TV Asahi, who were filming us as part of the travelogue series 'Beautiful Japan.'

No surprise that the school's outdoor swimming all summer is popular

Nearly half of them chose to go to the Tokyo end of the decision line, with three in the middle opting for the nearer towns, and nearly half standing at the Kaneyamamachi end of the line, predicting that they would stay here.

It was interesting that the Tokyo group couldn't immediately think why they had chosen to be there. With some prompting, they came up with shopping, Disneyland, and in the case of my son, Sunshine 60, a huge building with a panoramic viewing floor. They could think of what they might play with or eat, but they didn't really know what work they might do. When it came to making drawings of what they liked about the city they were really nonplussed, and sat blankly staring at white paper while the group who wanted to stay here launched exuberantly into their drawings. In the end some of what they drew could equally be experienced here -  a hamburger, some dogs, fashionable clothes. One drew the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, another a skyscraper. 

McChildhood comes to Japan: dumming down one of the healthiest diets in the world

It felt a little as if they were the puppets of television advertisers, with invented needs that could vaguely somehow be met by Tokyo, or perhaps were simply wanting what they felt they couldn't normally have living in the mountains. The most articulate little mite, all of seven years old and tiny, drew a big blue question mark:

He said that he knew that he didn't really know what Tokyo was like, but that was why he wanted to live there - to find out. An amazing thought for his age.

The group who wanted to stay in this area new exactly why they liked it. Swimming! Skiing! My family! The dams! The food! Stag beetles! And in the discussion they launched enthusiastically into defending Kaneyamamachi. My favourite drawing was of the child's house (with a yellow roof) connected to all the other houses in their village by paths, which seemed to express perfectly the closeness of the community and the warmth of feeling for children.

The village- wide web

It was rewarding and thought provoking to see one of Japan's major issues, the continued centralisation of life in two big cities and the emptying of the countryside, played out in the imaginations of children. Before long it will be a choice they will face for real, and one that may be determined by the practical necessities of work and money rather than personal preference. In the meantime I hope they can have a say in what happens, while enjoying what must be one of the best places anywhere to grow up. Childhood's real McCoy, beautiful, innocent and healthy in mind and body.



  1. Hope you can see this comment. When I was a kid who was grown up in Aizu, I hated people who gave too much attention to me. As you may know, since it's quite small community, almost everyone knows who is going to A university or B high school, or who works at C company. And even though it's not their business, those rumor goes around quickly. Also, I had longing for a city life like those kids, because I didn't know what Tokyo is like at that time. Actually, after a decade living in Tokyo, I found myself that country side is better for me, and as it turned out it was the "seek things one can't reach".

  2. Thanks for your response. Yes, the lack of privacy is one of the things that people can find difficult about living in small communities - and loneliness is one of the things people can experience in the city. In my first week here my wife phoned her mother 250km away in Tokyo. She said "Oh, Geoff went for a run in the rain this afternoon didn't he?" Funny. When that network is at the service of support and friendliness it is wonderful, but of course at times it can be in the service of small minded gossip and prejudice. I can see that it is important to see what else is out there before deciding what is right for you. I am really enjoying discovering what it is like to live in the deep countryside - I am trying to avoid deep Tokyo!