Like many, I was appalled to read that a Japanese boy was “abandoned” in a bear-infested forest as punishment. I imagined a Hansel-and-Gretel-type scenario, in which an adolescent boy was led deep into woods, handed a sack of trail mix, and left to fend for himself. Like many, I was angry to learn that the boy was only seven years old.
But then, I heard the rest of the story. In the father’s version, his son was misbehaving. He’d been throwing stones at cars and so forth. In an effort to get him to behave, the father stopped the car along the side of a rarely-used road and told him to get out. He drove a little ways ahead and the boy came running towards the car. After a few minutes, or perhaps seconds, the boy was allowed back into the car. The parents hoped that he had considered his bad behavior and was ready to apologize. As it turned out, he was not. So the father stopped the car again, made the kid get out, and drove a little ways up the road, out of sight, stopped the car and waited for the boy to come running again. When he did not, the parents got out of the car and went to get him. He was nowhere in sight.
I was reminded of that time that my Japanese husband took our young daughter, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair, shopping at Conan, a large, Walmart-sized home supplies store. He left her in the shampoo section and told her to stay put while he went off to check on something else. When he returned, she was gone. As I listened to the story later, I was livid. How could he have done such a thing? How could he have let her out of his sight? However, when we retold the story to Japanese family and friends, they were most impressed by our daughter’s resourcefulness. Separated from her father and unable to talk, she had tapped on a store employee’s shoulder, and written down her father’s name. He was then paged over the store’s intercom system and they were reunited.
For most Americans, the idea of leaving a seven-year-old kid alongside the road, or a disabled kid alone in a big store, sounds criminal. But let’s dial down the hysteria for a moment and take a look at a few cultural differences. For one thing, it is not unusual for a child to walk down a road alone in Japan. Japanese children are raised to be independent. Elementary school children walk to and from school, usually without any adult supervision. In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, small kids can be seen riding the subway on their own. They can do this because Japan is, by and large, a safe, well-ordered society.
In the beloved Japanese picture book Finding Little Sister by Yoriko Tsutsui, little Naomi, who looks to be about five, is playing outside on the curb when her mother takes off to go to the bank, leaving her alone with her younger sister, Ellie. The mother promises to be back before Ellie wakes up, but she isn’t. Naomi tries to amuse her little sister by playing with her in the street. The smaller child wanders away. There are big trucks, a strange, scolding man and other untold dangers. Naomi finally finds her little sister, and the mother appears at the end with a worried look on her face. This story, first published in Japanese in 1979, as well as Miki’s First Errand, by the same author, in which a little girl goes to the corner store by herself for the first time, are meant to show children gaining responsibility. As an American mother reading these books for the first time, I was shocked. What if these girls had been kidnapped? What if they’d gotten hit by a car? Japanese readers, however, applaud the bravery and independence of these young heroines.
In another book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, Christine Gross-Loh writes, “Most cultures believe kids need space to develop mastery and autonomy and self-reliance. But kids in America, who typically don’t experience many genuinely adult-free moments, aren’t often able to have the space they need to find out who they are and what they are capable of, and to develop that self-control and judgment they’ll need as they grow older.”
As an American, I think that, yes, it was unwise for the parents of Tanooka Yamato to take their eyes off of him, but perhaps we should also applaud them for raising such an independent, resourceful boy. Although his parents did not expect him to blaze a trail through the woods, that is in fact what he did. He tramped five kilometers through wild terrain until he came to a building used for training by the Japanese Self Defense Force with mattresses and a water faucet just outside. He stayed in this building for six days, and when he was finally, miraculously, found, he was safe.
About the Author
Suzanne Kamata is the author and/or editor of seven books including the anthologies Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs and Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, and the award-winning novel Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible. She is the Fiction Editor of Kyoto Journal, and Fiction Co-editor of literarymama.com. She earned an MFA from the University of British Columbia, and currently teaches at Tokushima University in Japan. Follow her on Twitter at at @.