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On Media and Saving the Children

If Japan were a village of one hundred people, only 14 would be children under 15 years old. Most of them would have families of one or two parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles among the villagers. Some villagers would have no family connections with the children and some might even shy away from them. But those 14 would eventually grow up and lead adult lives, becoming the core of the next generation. They might have children of their own, and children would certainly touch their lives as relatives and neighbors, or perhaps through work. In short, whatever the number, children play a seminal role in the construct of a society, and how we raise them will determine the character of that community's future.

It has now been many years since Japan's falling birth rate began to raise concerns, particularly within government and business circles, and the media have eagerly dissected the circumstances of children, and the difficulties and challenges confronting them and their parents, especially mothers. There has also been a steady stream of optimistic and cheery articles encouraging women to get married and have babies. Until recently, though, there were few images of families and couples, particularly those depicting males and fathers in relationships within communities.

But the media love a void, and a new genre has appeared among the many glossy publications that crowd Japan's magazine racks. Since late 2005, in both the childrearing and business sections, one can find magazines touting children, parenting and home education. Particularly significant is that, until recently, these same publishers had focused on business and economic coverage with primary readership among businessmen. President Family, for example, was first published in November 2005 as a companion volume of the monthly business magazine, President, and four months later became a separate monthly magazine. Similarly, in October 2005, Nikkei Home Shuppansha (publisher) first released Nikkei Kids+ (read as "Kids plus"), while the Asahi newspaper group began publishing AERA with Kids, a quarterly since March 2006. Slightly different but overlapping in content is edu, published by Shogakkan, an established educational publisher in Japan.

These four new magazines have come to be known as katei kyouiku zasshi, or "home education" magazines, and more straightforwardly as Ojuken Kids shi, exam-taking kids magazines. They tend to focus on school age children in contrast to conventional childrearing magazines that have focused on younger children, such as infants and toddlers. More interestingly, the target readership of these new magazines includes fathers as well as mothers. Each magazine has its own editing concept, but they share a focus on parenting and education that prepares children for better schooling, and helping parents to think positively about raising children, while at the same time "raising" themselves as parents and individuals. Brightly colored images of cheerful families, children with dads, and moms and dads, are found from cover to cover, very similar to the images common to foreign, or western, magazines and catalogs. A notable difference, however, is that these Japanese publications focus heavily on academic achievement and study success stories with precise advice for disciplining children and for purchasing products, services and programs.

Perhaps one reason for increased concern about academic performance was a test given to children nationwide in 2003. The OECD PISA test (Programme for International Students Assessment) found that mathematical literacy and reading skills had declined among Japan's 15-year-olds. It appears that parents, as well as government and business interests, were shocked enough to become concerned about the prospects for young people and probably the future of the nation. Since those test results were released the number of children taking entrance exams for private junior high schools has dramatically increased, particularly in Tokyo and surrounding cities.

What is the driving force behind these "home education" publications that were initially aimed at male readership and who is reading them? Katsuhiko Suzuki, the editor of President Family, explains that "the average readers are in their 30s-40s and seem to have high motivation, so we would like to support and inspire them to improve their lives ... and, surprisingly, approximately 65 percent of the readers are women, or mothers, eager to read practical advice concerning children's education and academic competency." Apparently the publishers have identified key concerns of parents, with fathers, too, taking an interest in reading about and sharing childrearing tasks. These concerns are reflected in a sampling of feature articles from Nikkei kids+: "The Best School," "Fathers' Power x Mothers' Power to Develop Children's Potential," "How to Choose a Cram Schools," "Learning Methods for Boys and Girls," and "Abilities Which Will Become Useful in Adulthood." *** Parenting is a popular concern and fathers have become part of the education equation.

More and more children are being seen in public with their fathers these days in parks, shops, schools and on streets and trains. In fact, researchers have found that increasing numbers of fathers believe spending time with their children is more important than spending time at work. However, as Professor Toshiyuki Shiomi of Shiraume Gakuen University points out, fathers need to learn to enjoy enriching the culture of their families and to find real joy in being together.****

If fathers go home just because they are "supposed to," they will likely have little idea of how to relate to their children. Inevitably, some fathers will end up acting authoritatively toward their children, causing stress on both sides. Entrance exams may give fathers an incentive to get involved with their children, but they also need to recognize that exams are not a sufficient foundation for building strong family bonds. Nevertheless, once fathers start committing time and energy to their families, they are likely to realize that competent communication skills are essential for building better relationships with their children, as well as with their partners.

Noting what is at stake, it is worth considering what these new publications can contribute to children's growth, as well as to parents' lives, and in turn to society's long-term wellbeing. Returning to the idea of Japan as a village of 100, what will those 14 children grow up to become? What will they learn from their parents and those in the surrounding community? How will they view their own families, now as children and in the future as parents? Is it possible for the media to help create a lasting, positive climate for children--for the sake of children, and not simply for the sake of parents, the government, and the business sector? As the number of children continues to decrease, the real challenge is for Japan to find a way for the whole village to share responsibility, willingly, for the sake of future generations, old and young alike. And the media can, and should, play a key role in this process.

One concern is that parents now in their 30s and 40s are said to belong to a generation that grew up highly dependent on manuals and catalogs, and are likely to be brand-dependent consumers. When finding jobs, dressing and choosing clothing, selecting places to dine and vacation, they tend to consult magazines and paperbacks. Commentators even use the phrase "branding family" to describe parents who seek status by "branding" their children in schools, clothing and activities. So where does this consumer-driven "home education" lead?
Noting that until recently most Japanese salarymen were effectively absent from their homes, leaving their wives to raise their children, it will continue to be difficult for young men to become interactive, responsible parents without having had a father role model in boyhood. Similarly, young women will have difficulty learning to share the tasks of parenting with a partner if they have never experienced a home where two parents shared the roles of nurturing. However many manuals the media churn out, parents will still struggle to help their children attain self-esteem and communication skills if these have not been learned at home, or in the community, in childhood.

Nevertheless, media-driven "home education" has also become a part of government policymaking: It has been a centerpiece of talks within the Government's Education Rebuilding Council, which is currently working on a report that will offer recommendations to parents as part of educational reform under the amendment of the Fundamental Law on Education. According to reports in the media, the Council emphasizes "ideal" family and parenting models that mirror the advice being given in the magazines mentioned above. It is also likely that their recommendations will be seen as definitive advice on how to raise Japan's children.

But reports and magazines are not sufficient to guide us in rearing future generations. Creating an enduringly supportive environment for children is the first and most important step toward meaningful social reform, and this will take more than official reports and consumption-driven magazine articles. It is crucial to remember that those 14 children of the village reveal our society's shortcomings, but they are not the cause of those shortcomings. How the rest of the village, the 86 people, live their lives--with or without direct contact with children--will determine far more than magazines and manuals what sort of adults our children become. If we are truly concerned about the future of the village, we must be willing to examine critically the shortcomings of all the villagers, and all the village systems, not just the parents. By making childrearing central to all communities, both young and old alike can learn how to support and be supported across generations; and, in turn, come to share the task of caring for the entire village. Nurturing the next generation is a responsibility that all in society share, particularly parents, but both parents and non-parents alike.


* http://www2s.biglobe.ne.jp/~kobayasi/area/population/popu_1.htm#japan

** http://www.mext.go.jp/english/statist/05101901.htm

*** http://kidsplus.jp/backnm.asp

**** pp14-19, Kyouiku, June, 2007, Kokudosha
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