In this entry Mike writes about being bullied by five-year-olds in a Tokyo Community Centre
The Japanese are a kind and respectful people. It’s probably one of the few stereotypes of
Japanese people that hold any weight.
So would it really be that naive to assume that their children would be anything but angelic
role models for kids around the world to emulate? Well, yes. Yes it would.
I like working with kids and had worked in a few nurseries growing up, so was happy to
be chosen for the gap year placement at a community centre in Tokyo, which included a
nursery school and after school club.
I don’t know why I expected Japanese children to be the way I did. Some ill-informed people
seem to think that the only Japanese food is sushi and that samurai still wander the streets
of Japan. I was equally stupid, if a little less delusional. I saw myself being a breath of
fresh air for the kids. I’d encourage them to come out of the shells they’d no doubt be in,
show them that it was OK to make noise and act up sometimes. I needn’t have worried, my
encouragement was far from necessary.
I got my first wake up call in the nursery. There I spent most of my mornings outside with the
kids in the playground. These normally started with me failing to engage them in an activity
before accepting that, once again, they were happier putting live ants on me. When that got
boring a slight variation was to kill the ants and put them in my hair. And when they couldn't
find any ants, they'd just throw dirt on me. Over time all that really changed was the variety
of bugs that ended up in my hair. Any attempts to engage with them resulted in my crude
Japanese being mocked. I'd help serve them lunch and then sit with them. I was always
proud of the way I was able to unite all the children sitting at my table in a common cause.
Unfortunately, that cause was normally the ritual putting down and humiliation of me. As well
as my personal hygiene being brought into question (they’d tell me I smelt) I was also often
called “stupid (baka)” and a “hippo (kaba)”, and occasionally a baka kaba. Despite the
relentless nature of the abuse, the children were mostly aged between 4 and 5 and so there
wasn't much venom in their attacks.
By the time they were old enough to join the after school club they’d really honed their skills.
Most of the first 50 or so words I learnt in Japan were ones abusively uttered in my direction
from the mouths of the kids there. As those attending were anything up to about 13, it took a
lot more effort to win them over.
I used to do my best to mix with all age groups and spread my time fairly. But there were a
few who didn’t like sharing, one boy refused to let anyone else join our games of football.
Obviously in a hall full of kids who all wanted me to play different things, this didn’t go down
well. “Michael’s not your thing” a girl sternly told him one day, I would have been touched
that she was looking out for me had she not added “he’s everybody’s thing!”.
That boy was one of the most challenging there. When he didn’t get his own way he’d often
scratch, kick or bite me. One day after patiently trying to negotiate with him, he spat in my
face. I lost it and stormed towards the room where the teachers were. As I slammed open
the door with him under one arm I was met by his rather concerned looking dad, who’d just
arrived to pick him up. Realising I didn’t have the Japanese to even begin to explain the
situation, I spent the next 5 minutes awkwardly flapping about trying to mime out what had
The most disturbing of all the kids’ behaviour though, was ‘kanchou’. The literal translation is
something along the lines of ‘prank where the anal region of a distracted person is poked
with index fingers.’ Yes, it’s literally as messed up as it sounds, and yet I never saw a child
reprimanded for doing this. I knew that the performance which would have been required to
effectively explain the inappropriateness of this behaviour was way beyond my miming
abilities. While I understand there’ll always be cultural differences, maybe it’s a good idea
that the lines not to be blurred when teaching kids about touching other people. Perhaps
then incidents of groping on trains wouldn’t get to the point where women-only carriages
were a necessity. But I digress.
I in no way think kids in Japan are any worse behaved than anywhere else’s kids. They’re
just no better either. So, and it may seem stupidly obvious to say, it turns out kids will be
kids wherever they live in the world, even if they do eventually become polite and passive
adults with an unhealthy respect for authority.