The Child in Society

Japanese and European Historical Perspectives on the Child

The Chinese character for "child" () is a pictograph of a baby. However, what are the origins for the meaning of "child"? When I look in the dictionary, the definition for child is as follows: born from the parent, one's offspring, very young, small, one's subordinate. When I look in the Chinese character dictionary, some additional meanings are listed, such as, a title of a respected man in the community (e.g. Confucious ), to describe one's occupation (e.g. editor ), ending of a female name, egg of an animal.

The English word "child", comes from the Teutonic root, and from the Gothic word for womb. Both words were used by our German and English forefathers.

In Japanese, we call the newborn baby "aka-chan" (aka = = red, and chan = = title given young children). This is simply because the skin of the baby appears reddish in color. A similar concept is the word "baby" in English. It is said that "baby" originated from resembling the first sounds made by the infant, which sound like "be-be" or "ba-ba". The medical word for baby was termed because the infant survives on the milk of the mother (nyu = , breast milk, + ji = , infant). In English, the baby is also referred to as an "infant", which has its roots in defining a person who cannot speak (in=not, fant=speak).

Thus, we can see that the Japanese view the child with a more sensory perspective, while, on the other hand, the European culture emphasizes communication. The above is a simple example of how the society and culture where a child lives, influences how the society sees and treats him/her.

The image of the child in historical Japan, is also different from the European perspective. The Japanese tended to view children as treasures from the heavens and treated them as such, almost spoiling them by Western standards. Few examples of the origins of these thoughts are as follows. One example is found in the law around 701 A.D. This Japanese law granted land to any "person" over 6 years of age, thus, the child became a source of wealth for the family. Around 769 A.D., the famous poet, Okura Yamanoue, sang that "children are more precious than silver and gold", from the popular collection of poems, "Manyoushu".

Another example is the proverb stating that children are gods until age seven. In addition, they were thought to be the link between the sacred world and the real world. If the child were to pass away before his/her eighth birthday, s/he was considered to be returning to the divine world, preparing for rebirth. Thus, the traditional view of the child, and even somewhat today, is basically that children are sweet and sin-free, and need much nurturance and indulgence. Indulgence is often misinterpreted as "spoiling" by Western researchers, however, since the Japanese view the child as innocent and pure, it is rather, the contamination of adults that results in spoiling, not the indulgence.

However, after the Meiji Restoration, the view of children changed dramatically, with the change in society. This was the era, where the Japanese were trying to catch up and even outperform the Western world, which resulted in the society taking a much more aggressive stance. Thus, I believe that some of the problems that children face in Japan today, has its roots in this change in the Japanese society, which subsequently changed the way Japanese view and treat children.

Switching now, to the European historical view of children, we see that the view of children was much different. This Christianity-oriented society did not always offer children to lead peaceful lives. Until the medieval era, children were not even recognized as part of society. Even if they were considered heroes, official records were not kept of these children. When there were unfortunate deaths of children, some classes were not even able to own graves for their children. Moreover, when the baby started to become a child, s/he was immediately thrust into the adult world, to share the roles and responsibilities of the adult and society, which is now well-known as the master-apprentice system. Hence, in this society, "play" for children was considered by some to be sinful.

With the emergence of the natural sciences (i.e. Galileo and Newton), basic skills and industry were now becoming a system linking one with the other. This brought on a new wave of philosophers who spoke of human rights in the seventeenth century, which changed European society drastically, and consequently how they viewed children. The patrimonial family unit which was based on primogeniture, now changed to the smaller family unit headed by the husband and wife. This allowed for all the children of a family to receive equal treatment and inheritances from their parents, and thus, a new family system was borne. This resulted in the need for parents to educate and nurture their children, which led to the formation of the philosophies guiding the modern school system.

It may be, however, that the Japanese view of children was influenced by the Europeans and vice versa. The Japanese children thought to be more precious than silver and gold, could be referred to as that because of their labor power. In addition, the Europeans who came to Japan in the Meiji era and saw the children of Japan (which was much poorer than Europe at the time) playing joyfully, were said to be very much moved by this scene.

I believe that we must once again reconsider the way we think of children in today's global and rapidly changing society. Hints of how children are changing can be observed daily, in viewing the issues that children must deal with daily. Additionally, with the onset of the multimedia revolution, schools must also rethink the way we teach our children. Conclusively, it is necessary for us, parents, educators and adults of society to constantly keep in mind the position and rights of the "child" and how we wish to define their role to accommodate the changing times.
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