Japanese society and social institutions

Early socialization in Japan plays a significant role in nurturing the Japanese child. In particular, children are instilled with values of the Japanese society which are essential for them to strive in society in the future. In this report, our scope of study focuses on ages of children ranging from 0 to 14 years of age, from babies to elementary school.

Early socialization aims to instill two important features of Japanese society to a child, mainly group consciousness and loyalty. Apart from that, traits and beliefs like guilt, hygiene and perseverance are also essential in the child’s upbringing.

Our presentation started off with a role-play of the different stages of adolescence, portraying the relationships between child and mother and the outside world, as well as the idea of inclusion and exclusion. The purpose of this role-play is to allow the audience to visualize the different stages through which a Japanese child has to go through.

Early Socialization (baby)

Socialization is defined as “the transmission of a cultural system from individual to individual and from generation to generation, thus insuring its persistence.” In this section, we will look at the interaction patterns in a Japanese family and how it reinforces interdependence and solidarity between the baby and the caretaker.

Children signify the continuity of the family line. Thus, there is maximum freedom and indulgence given to the baby whose importance is undoubted. The Japanese feel that a new human being must have its own new bed; therefore, it is only till the baby is about a year old would he sleep with the mother. The Japanese mother interprets her baby’s crying as a sign of frustration and pain- crying is to be prevented as soon as possible and appeasement takes the form of nursing or other soothing methods. These are just some instances of the indulgence bestowed upon him.

The Japanese baby’s interactions with the people around him, especially his mother, sensitize him to the ittaikan, the feeling of oneness that adult Japanese seek in intimate interactions. The baby is being sensitized to loneliness and dependency through the baby version of the popular game hide-and-seek. An adult hides his face with his hands and plays peek-a-boo with the baby, however with more emphasis on his ‘absence’ rather than his ‘presence’. The baby, tense at first, responds to the revealed face with squeals of joy. The baby is thus sensitized to the fear of loneliness, as well as being reliant on his mother for his desires. It is apparent that socialization has contributed to the sensitivity to loneliness and the urge to belong to a community exhibited by Japanese adults.

Even though early socialization sensitizes the baby to interdependence between himself and the people around him, they are nevertheless trained in basic abilities. First, the child is encouraged to learn to control himself physically. Toilet training begins by encouraging the child to signal his urge to the family, allow the caretaker to bring him to the toilet to ease himself and ends with the child being independent in the toilet. Oral training involves the child’s acceptance of food from the spoon instead of being breast-fed. This is marked by the ceremony kuizome (“beginning to eat”) which is held when the child is about a hundred days old, and can finally handle his spoon or chopsticks. Mothers often employ harsh methods for weaning, such as covering the nipple with hot pepper. The baby is also trained in his posture and motor skills. The family encourages the baby to turn over in a lying position, to crawl around, to sit up, to stand up, and to walk. This is in line with the proverbial saying “The crawling baby is told to stand up, the standing baby is told to walk—such is the parental wish.” Independence is part of normality for the Japanese child.

Along with physical training, intellectual training of the baby involves teaching him to vocalize as well. He learns the names—often baby words of the things around him and concerning him. Although verbal skill is generally not stressed in Japanese culture, the child is trained in speaking and his eloquence is cherished and brings the family pride. The importance of being clever is constantly impressed on the child: the mother praises her child for being riko (‘smart’) and scolds him for being baka (‘stupid’). Guilt is instilled in the child when he is unable to meet up to the expectations of his family and is largely prevalent in Japanese society to pressure people to excel.

The remarkable emphasis that the Japanese place on conventional manners and etiquette in training its younger members is distinctive from other cultures. The baby is always included in the behavioral norms of daily life so as to allow for the instillation of such virtues as early as possible.

Japanese children and their mothers

There is a distinctive feature in which Japanese mothers care for their children. According to a survey conducted, it is evident that Japanese mothers are more prone to physical ways of taking care of their children as compared to American mothers. For example, a Japanese mother is more likely to carry and rock her baby to sleep as compared to an American mother.

This is due to the fact that Japanese mothers believe in engaging and interacting with the child through these physical means so as to further enhance maternal relationship with her child. This is in contrast to American mothers, who focus more on vocal interaction with their children to better understand their needs. Also, Japanese mothers will usually attend to the child all the time regardless of what he needs. Thus, Japanese babies are generally more pampered compared to American babies because they usually get what they want by crying out loud.

Because of the fact that Japanese mothers see their children as a part of themselves, they are usually largely responsible for the discipline of the child. This is evident in a survey conducted, where Japanese children fear their mothers the most. Due to the close relationship between Japanese mothers and their children, there is a disposition towards not acknowledging their children’s maturity and independence too early.

From Home to Preschool

Different Worlds of Home and School

Home and school are two diverse environments for Japanese children. The idea of school or shudan seikatsu means life in a group. As participants of a group, children have to learn that their own individual desires are secondary to others. More importantly, they have to exercise a certain degree of enryo, or restraint in expressing their own feelings as well as develop a greater willingness to interact harmoniously with others. This restrained cultivation of self-presentation is fundamental, as they will eventually learn to skillfully adjust their behavior to varying situations in the future.

On the other hand, a child is entitled to the indulgence of amae at home. By allowing a permissive atmosphere for a child to display his feelings incessantly, they will be able to accept others more readily and develop a well-adjusted personality. Moreover, “the conspicuous display of amae in the home is an important method of affirming intimacy and trust”7; to be able to indulge in dependency and desires is a way of demonstrating affection for family members as well.

RELATED POST:  Gender Socialization

Self-Sufficiency Skills in Home and School

A certain degree of self-reliance is expected of Japanese children before officially entering preschool. Before the beginning of preschool, mothers are sent a checklist of behaviors to ensure their child has attained a level of facilitation in movement such as changing shoes and clothing as well as going to the toilet. Therefore, the idea of self-reliance and independence is highly regarded in preschools. Often, the responsibility of training of a child to carry out self-sufficiency routines lies with the mother. In preschools, children have to frequently change their footwear and clothing throughout the day. Children can change up to at least three different sets of school uniform a day, depending on each occasion – mainly consisting of the enpuku (main uniform), the asobigi (play uniform), swimsuit and a new set of underwear. Footwear includes indoor and outdoor shoes, as well as surippa or toilet slippers.

Such practices also help children attain a higher degree of self-mastery. Demarcating the difference between public and private settings by means of different clothing and language is a common Japanese custom. Not exceptional to schools, businesses and organizations require that their employees maintain two set of clothing to be worn outside and inside the workplace. Frequent changes of clothing are also a “central means of teaching kejime (social distinction) appropriate to school life. The uniforms also serve as an efficient way of reinforcing collective identity among Japanese children.”
Amae in Home and Preschool

Two primary methods of demonstrating amae in the home are regressive demands for assistance and the self-centered expression of individual desires.”

Amae at home is seen as a mode of direct communication between a mother and her child and is often considered a form of intimacy. If a mother were to disregard her child’s demands and wants, it would seem to suggest an unsympathetic bond between her and her child. Conversely, there are limits to the development of a close relationship between a child and his teacher. Mothers deem that if a teacher allows a child to indulgence of amae, it hints of exclusivity and favoritism on the part of the teacher.

The selfish expression of individual desires or wagamama, is also not encouraged in the context of preschools. For example, a child should not be offered a bigger piece of cake compared to his friends whereas at home, mothers feel that it is all right for the child to have the biggest piece.

The Japanese believe it is natural that a child be allowed to behave one way at home and another way in preschool.” By allowing a child to freely indulge in amae at home, it is easier for them to display controlled behavior in school. “A child who shows amae is also following culturally appropriate rules for demonstrating trust and affection within intimate relationships.”

However, this raises the important question of over-indulgence as well. Such tolerance to wagamama and amae at home may not allow a smooth transition from home to preschool, as the world of shudan seikatsu is very different from that of a nurturing home.

Mothers and Preschool

For mothers of the preschoolers, participation in preschool related activities forms an extended network of social interaction and communication beyond their immediate families. Besides rendering help in administration matters and organizing activities for the children, mothers of children in Japanese preschools must devote their time in assisting their children in various ways, such as escorting their child to the school gate or bus stop each morning and afternoon when they return. Any tardiness or late arrival will be considered a lack of commitment on the mother’s part and this is highly disfavored among preschool teachers.

The very high expectations for maternal participation in Japanese preschools are significant because it helps to socialize Japanese mothers to carry out their roles in supporting their children’s education. This manifestation of a mother’s love and concern for her child is also demonstrated in the preparation of the obento for lunchtime, which will be discussed later. There is pressure for the Japanese mother to conform to rigid standards as well.


Goals of Preschool Education

Preschool education in Japan works towards achieving two main goals: perseverance (gambaru) and group orientation. These goals will provide the foundation of a good character and a wholesome personality on an individual. Education at this stage is focused more on play and games by getting the children to experience incorporation in group. This instills quality values such as cooperation and consideration which will make them a good Japanese later on in life.

Katsura Day Care Center

A substantial part of primary socialization now takes place in such institutions, which can be divided into Yoochien (kindergarten, open for half days) and Hoikuen12 (day care center, operating for full days). Of the two, the latter has shown the greater rate of growth and will serve as an example of our discussion henceforth. The grounds for studying day care centers are primarily that they are becoming increasing influential in ‘designing’ the face of Japan’s future generations: both in terms of preparing the children for the Japanese education system and later, for entry into the work force.

Since the general consensus is that the child should stay with the mother until at least the age of three, day care centers are utilized as the last resort. This reinforces the mentality that staff has to make up for this ‘loss’ in such children. We will be using Katsura Hoikuen as representative of a typical center due to Japan’s rather uniform childcare system and its similarity to pre schools throughout Japan itself.

Caretakers do not merely assume a custodial role; there are two interrelated roles which they perform for children before the age of three and after. Before three, the caretakers function as mother substitutes and often assume a motherly persona to make up for the lack of affection to the child. After three though, this role shifts to one of an educator since it is believed that too much attention on the child would make him over indulgent. The child is then steered towards group activities (shudan seikatsu) in order to learn the dynamics of group solidarity and mutual dependence.

Daily patterns observed in the Katsura day care center

Especially significant is the practice of co- sleeping, where the caretaker would physically cuddle the child or lie with him to help him sleep. The former acts as a mother substitute and believes that the best way for the development of emotion, especially in infants, is close skin contact. Another interesting point is that children sleep on futons rather than beds, with edges that almost touch one another so it is possible for children to make contact with one another.

What can we infer from the descriptions of Japanese sleeping habits?

Firstly, the naturalness of group membership is instilled into the child. When the children are all lying on the futons close to one another, they undergo an experience of sinking, of being submerged in their peer group. During these moments, the children speak intimately and enter the personal space of their peers. These are means through which the emotional stance towards the circle of friends is actualized and the child will learn to trust in this comforting solidarity. Sleeping with peers is therefore part of a way in which the naturalness of group cohesion is constructed.

Secondly, the child learns mutual dependence in the process.

Unlike their Western counterparts who sleep on beds at the earliest age possible (with beds being in fixed positions with clear boundaries for separate identities), Japanese children sleep on futons which allow for and encourage physical intimacy. The notion of sleeping is therefore related to the stress on mutual dependence not independence and this recurring theme will set in motion the ideal of commonality in Japanese society.

RELATED POST:  A Look into the Socio-Cultural aspects of Japanese & Korean Culture through the Lens of Drama

Education and Play

Gambaru or learning to persevere is the key to Japanese character development. Literally, it means “to persist”, “to hang on” and “to do one’s best”. The underlying principal is to have the patience and endurance to finish tasks, the persistence to keep trying despite failure and the general ability to try as hard as possible in whatever one does. There is distinction between Japanese and American in determining educational achievement of a child. For Japanese, persistence is seen as the secret to educational achievement. It is gained through direct experience of socialization which is the most powerful form of internalizing one’s attitudes. In contrast, the American stress on one’s intellectual ability that is, IQ and talent.

Significance of Gambaru

Elements of gambaru appear in activities held at school. Children are taught to control their body in static positions and in completing tasks by overcoming obstacles. It involves passive and active responses. For example, learning to sit without fidgeting when waiting for one’s turn in games is a passive body control. The effort in overcoming the physical pain and discomfort of the posture inculcates the ability to persevere despite difficulties the children experience. Self-control and self restraint is a disciplinary tactic, making children concentrate and persistent during play and games which pursue them as individuals.

Teachers and peers play important role in motivating a child to continue to persevere. Their recognition and support reinforces the effort to continue in completing tasks despite the difficulties involved to the child. The appreciation and acceptance by the crowd is coupled with the personal sense of achievement.

The ability to persevere is the prerequisite for functioning later on in life. Experiences during childhood also reinforce the importance of functioning as a group. Both traits are indeed integral in the Japanese society.

Mealtime Simple Procedures

There are procedures before the children can start their meal. Firstly, the arrangement of lunchbox and utensils must be put in prescribed order and wait for entire class to be ready. Next, they will sing a lunchbox song together to herald this significant time.

After singing the song, the monitors will stand up and lead the class in a short prayer and announce the beginning of the meal by reciting “itadakimasu”. During mealtime, they will share personal experiences with their group members such as about television shows and family trips. If they ask for second helpings, they must queue properly and ask politely. After eating, they will recite “gochisosama deshita” as the ending part of meal. Then, they will keep their own utensils and wash up.

Aesthetics of the Obento

The obento is a boxed meal which each child has to bring one for lunch. It has a symbolic significance of a concrete manifestation of mother’s love and concern for her child and a symbolic bond between mother at home and child at school.

There are established regulations for obento where the food prepared must be in small portions, easy to eat and pleasing to the eye. Besides that, food that the child does not like must be slowly introduced so that the child will not be a fussy eater. The obento should also be handmade, including the obento bag carrier. The creating of obento is actually a ritualized task for mothers, who are perceived to be the main support for her child’s future. Each obento therefore serves as a connection between uchi (home) and soto (outside).

Significance of Lunchtime

Lunchtime constitutes a valuable lesson in basic daily habits and customs of Japanese group life. It is significant because it gives children space for social interaction. It involves a social expectation that everyone eats the same food and reinforces the idea of uniformity. It focuses on the social aspects of eating behaviour, such as rituals and the lessons of neatness and tidiness and teaches children to become ‘civilized social beings.

Strong group identity during lunchtime reinforces positive qualities such as responsibility, cooperation, consideration and care which play an important role in guiding the movement of children from the family to the wider world.

Lunchtime teaches children self control. This can be seen during the time of waiting when the tables have to be prepared. Here, children will learn to overcome their cravings. Besides that, it also helps to develop children’s motor behavior when eating with chopsticks. The perseverance and patience from both examples help them instill self mastery and self control to overcome difficulties in future.

Elementary school

One of the predominant traits of the Japanese is loyalty to the group, and this transcends all layers of society. Company loyalty is the end result of this form of education and it typifies the allegiance that binds the workers to their company. In fact, Japanese schools serve as a major instrument to nurture the tradition of lifetime employment to a single company and the course of developing group loyalty begins in school with the very first day of grade one when the Japanese child enters his “kumi” – their elementary school. In this section, we shall look at what a “kumi” is all about and how it helps to make the Japanese child “Japanese”.
Firstly, it must be understood that the Japanese “kumi” resembles any American school but the differences are critical. The “kumi” represents the beginning of the formal process of group training which binds the individual to his group to achieve group harmony. In this respect, the group- oriented nature of the “kumi” clashes with the “individualism” of US schools.

The Japanese “kumi”

Classroom layout

The class usually comprises of 40-45 first graders who are assigned to a single teacher for a 2 year period or until end of 2nd grade. The classroom is arranged into 4 or 5 straight row of double desks with each child is randomly assigned to a seat, where a row of boys will be seating beside a row of girls. This seating arrangement remains fairly stationary throughout the year. As a result of this seating plan, bonds between each child would be deeply developed.

Schooling hrs

The Japanese “kumi” differs with the US in its long hours. A typical Japanese child would attend school from 8:30am to 3:30pm usually, with after- school activities and Saturday classes. All these eventually add up to around 230 school days a year as compared to the average of 180 days in the US.


The Japanese child would learn to relate very closely to his “kumi” for they would be in the same “kumi” for 2 years in a row. The child would be frequently reminded by teacher that the “kumi” depends on the child and that it represents his home away from home.

Aims of the “kumi”

It prepares the child for his future place in working society through a sense of loyalty and this belonging is the “sine qua hon” of the Japanese. As mentioned by Benjamin Duke, the Japanese exist most comfortably within the group and is nervous and ill at ease when confronting a situation alone. This reflects the group orientation emphasis in the education and the Japanese elementary school perpetuates this trait with its rigid organization into “kumi.” This form of education allows the child to learn his place in society, through its relative permanence, security, sanctity, as well as the restrictions.

Through the “kumi” the child build a mentality of “we and them” and few people would want to be rejected by their peers. Thus, most would make maximum efforts to be accepted by the group due to the security offered by it.

Teaching methods

The teaching methods employed in the “kumi” play an important role in developing and nourishing a group feeling among its students. The students would be taught as a single group using the same book and at the same pace. Even the assignments given to the students adopt a group approach rather than a concern for individuality.

RELATED POST:  Household, family life, kinship, and society

All these are in stark contrast to the US schools whereby classes are broken down to smaller reading group based on reading ability, and students are moved from group to group as they show signs of progress or decline.

Building leadership

Each “han-cho” (leader of a division of the kumi) will eventually learn the subtleties of Japanese leadership and much effort will be made to lead without leading too much for humility is cherished in Japanese society. However, what do we mean by “to lead without leading too much?”
“the nail that sticks out get knocked down.”

This means that the leader, although chosen to lead, cannot stand out too much from the group for his main goal is to harmonize and act compatibly with the general will of the group. He must patiently endeavor to persuade members of his group, through lengthy discussion, to support a certain action in a very uniquely Japanese way of decision making13, whereby the main objective is to forge a general consensus through reconciling various opinions into a resolution instead of adopting a “majority win” attitude in the US. To maintain effective leadership, a sense of fairness must prevail and its members must feel that they are part of the decision making process through mutual understanding.

Other activities to further strengthen the bond between the child and his “kumi”:

1) School lunch

The importance of the lunch is still as important in elementary school as pre-school. Lunch is arranged in such a way as to solidify the “han” and “kumi” relationship, for instance, students remain in their classrooms and eat the prepared meal as a “kumi”.

2) Field trips

Field trips are equally important as they incorporate the “han.” During the trip, students would be assigned to seats on the bus or train thus enabling the members to chat with each other. Each “han-cho” would be responsible for their “han” with the effect of further strengthening the bond of the group solidarity and loyalty to the “han” and “kumi”

3) Teacher involvement

Every year, there will be cases of a “meet- the- parents session” where the parents of each child in the “kumi” will be invited to witness and experience for themselves the teaching environment of the “kumi.” The presence of parents in the “kumi” classrooms further corroborates a child’s loyalty to the “kumi.” The child on his part can witness the presence of his parents in the classroom and the “kumi’s” sphere of influence extends into home itself. As a result, this triangular web of relations between parents, children and teachers is woven more intricately and is part of the construction of a strong sense of loyalty to the “kumi” not only by the child, but by the parents as well.

Reviews of the “kumi”

Due to this education system, several positive and negative outcomes have resulted; let us first look at some of the positive aspects of the “kumi”.

Firstly, a high degree of loyalty to the group is developed and this eventually extends and carries over to the workplace once the child reaches adulthood. The “kumi” is therefore extremely effective in preparing the child for working life.

With an emphasis on harmony, an average Japanese child adapts to the “kumi” process by learning to live harmoniously with the group through a commitment to his loyalty to it. Also, due to the influx of school influence over individual, Japanese children tend to be led to more constructive goals as compared to US society where youths form highly independent peer group attitudes.

On the other hand, the “kumi” is seen to be stifling of individuality and creativity. The Japanese child’s spontaneity, originality and innovative thinking seem to fade away as the child progresses up the grade. The child also tends to adopt a “sway- with- the- breeze” mentality to maintain group harmony as a result of the decision making process. As such, a herd instinct mentality develops at the expense of individuality.

Lastly, there is the problem of “kikolushijio” or the returning student who had spent a few of his early years overseas. These students would find it difficult to fit in for they lack the experience from regular Japanese “kumis” and it may take many years to overcome this feeling of exclusion. In some cases, some may never fully adjust to group cliques and forever feel out of the mainstream Japanese culture.

Hygiene and its significance in Japan

Hygiene is a very important feature in Japanese society. This is due to the fact that there is a clear distinction between what is “clean” and “dirty” in daily life. In particular, the Japanese refer to this feature in relation to “germs” which symbolizes “dirt” from “outside”14 in contrast to what is “clean” and “inside”. Thus, it is essential that children are taught correct practices of hygiene such as the very act of taking off one’s shoes when entering what is defined as “inside”. We also see evidence of hygiene being taught to the young, as evidenced from the formation of the term bacchi, which means dirty in Japanese baby language.

Another example is that mothers usually do not allow their children to sit on the floor because it is considered “dirty”. The idea of bathing at night is also closely linked to that of hygiene and this is imparted to children when they are young to make sure that they are clean before going to bed after a day of being “outside” and accumulating “dirt”. It should be noted that “dirt” in Japanese sense refers to hitogomi, which means “people dirt”.

A very important point to take note of is the distinction between what is “clean” and “dirty” is tied in closely with the concepts of purity and impurity. We therefore see the importance of hygiene in the everyday lives of the Japanese. It plays a vital role in distinguishing the social status of people and has a heavy influence even on mundane issues concerning the Japanese.

In sum, the Japanese child is molded into the eventual ‘model’ Japanese through early socialization. It is within this crucial period that important values and virtues are inculcated for him to function as a collective whole in future. In particular, he is emerged into a group culture, which takes precedence and lends an identity to him as a willing participant. Such, is a gradual process which is internalized rather than enforced upon by a higher level of authority, making it a potent impetus for a group oriented outlook necessary for survival in the Japanese context. It is clear that this early start represents a baby step towards a complete assimilation into becoming a member of Japanese society.


Ben-Ari, Eyal, 1996, Body Projects in Japanese Childcare, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon
Hendry, Joy., 1986, Becoming Japanese: The World of the Pre-School, Manchester University Press
Peak, Lois, 1992, Learning to go to School in Japan: The Transition From Home to Preschool Life, University of California Press
Benedict, Ruth, 1977, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, Routledge and Kegan Paul, ch.12
Kegan Paul, 1977, The Child Learns , Ch12
Lebra, T.S. 1982, Japanese Patterns of Behavior, University of Hawaii Press, Ch.8
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko, 1984, Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan, Cambridge University Press, Ch2
Okimoto, Daniel and Rohlen, Thomas, 1988, Inside the Japanese System: Readings on Contemporary Society and Political Economy, Stanford University Press, Ch. 4 & 5
Tobin, Joseph, 1992, “Japanese preschools and the pedagogy of selfhood” in Rosenberger, N.R. (ed), Japanese Sense of Self, Cambridge University Press
Duke, Benjamin, 1986, The Japanese School: Lessons for Industrial America, Praeger, Ch.2
Freedman, Daniel G. and DeBoer, Marilyn M., 1979, “Biological and cultural differences in early child development”, pp.579-600 in Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 8

Sign up for updates

About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

Keep Reading

Leave a Comment