It is 2 p.m. on a sunny weekday. Normally, you would expect to see plenty of children playing outdoors. Unless, of course, you were in Japan. Many children in Japan, particularly the ones living in metropolitan areas, enter 'elite' education programs at a very early age, with the goal of preparing them for acceptance into well-regarded private kindergartens. Not only the children, but the parents as well are interviewed and must take entrance exams in order for the child to be accepted.
If the family is lucky, and the child gains entrance into the elite pre-school, he or she takes the first steps down a long educational path designed by materialistic adults, with the goal of training him to be number one in a cut-throat society. This curriculum does not teach children how to become warm-hearted, creative, or supportive human beings. Many of the parents feel that a poor performance by the child reflects badly on them and so the 'lucky' children tend to be scolded by their parents to do better and study harder. As a result, the children do not develop as many friendships as they otherwise might, as the other children most likely to be their friends are also their competitors.
The stress builds up, and television makes it worse. Isolated from human relationships, the children spend more and more of what little playtime they have left watching TV, where they learn about violence, see reports of bullying in the schools (a major problem in Japan) and of teenage suicide. There have been several 'copycat' incidents recently, which clearly indicate the problem. Pressured by their parents to perform at home, and bullied at school, more and more Japanese children are killing themselves. Admitting that bullying is a problem would be to admit that school officials and teachers are not in control of their school so most of the officials and teachers turn their backs on the problem, and anyone who speaks out is ostracised.
The world of the Japanese child is now full of rivalry, deception, a lack of close relationships and a denial of responsibility. Where have the energetic, fearless, curious days of childhood gone?
I believe that these problems are due to several factors. First, the decrease in the number of children means an increase in single-child families, which means that the one child is the focus of the parent's attention. Their natural concern is amplified to an unhealthy degree because their 'immortality' is invested in a single child, and so there is a dangerous tendency to push the child to excel, instead of letting him or her develop at a normal pace. Secondly, under the current Japanese education system, entrance into a top university usually means a good job with a major company upon graduation (which is almost assured), so the hot focus of educational competition occurs a lot earlier than in other countries. Getting into the 'right' preschool makes it easier to get into the right 'kindergarten', and so up the 'escalator schools' to the right university. Thirdly, because of the historical Japanese culture of consensus, the Japanese educational system rewards conformity and penalises individualism. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" extremely hard in Japanese schools, And finally, there is a lack of communication and interaction in many Japanese families; the father, and sometimes both parents, come home late, and so do the children! Most of them attend one or more after-school cram schools, to prepare for the crucial entrance examinations, not to mention learning other things that might give them a crucial edge.
For example, my eight year-old niece attends a public elementary school in Tokyo from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. each weekday. In addition, Monday and Wednesday she has piano lessons at 3 p.m. and a swimming class at 5 p.m.; on Tuesday she studies classic ballet at 3 p.m.; Thursday she studies painting at 2.30 p.m., and until recently she also attended an English class! Friday is the only day on which she has free time in the afternoon, and on Saturday, she again attends swimming class. So most weekdays she returns from school around 2 p.m., has a quick snack, and rushes off to after-school school. When I asked her to come over to play and she told me that, "I'm not available until next Friday," I was puzzled, so I inquired, and found out how scheduled her life is.
Of course, she has lots of homework to do and in addition, she is expected to practise ballet and piano at home, which means she has hardly any time to play with other children. As she is an only child, she is always around adults, and so she does not know how to talk to or to deal with younger children.
My niece is not a special case, she is just an average Tokyo second-grade elementary school student. She may even be a lucky one. Many children in Tokyo attend schools located far from their homes because their parents believe the more distant school will better prepare them for the college entrance examinations. Elementary school students are a common sight during morning rush-hour on the trains. They have to leave home around 6.30 a.m. in order to make it to school by 8.00 a.m. In their uniforms, they sleepily run up and down the stairs of the train station.
Some concerned teachers have tried to institute reforms by making time for non-scholastic, social and sports activities during school. Unfortunately, there were massive protests from parents, complaining about 'useless activities'. So the current generation of Japanese children does not get enough exercise and is physically weak - even a simple game of dodge ball is sometimes beyond their abilities. They have not had the opportunity to learn how to use their bodies properly through unstructured exercise and play. Worst of all, as they sit eating chocolate and potato chips and playing video games, they don't know what they are missing.
EMF (electro-magnetic fields) and limitless junk-food are causing adult diseases in children as young as eight or nine years old. High blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, weak or misshapen bones, stress-related asthma and atopy are all unusually common children's diseases in Japan.
In order to help solve these problems, ten years ago I started teaching yoga to mothers and other women of childbearing age. Originally, my lessons were asana-oriented, to clean up the body, while at the same time I would encourage mental awareness. About five years ago, I started to put more emphasis on purifying the mind. However, since the situation is getting even worse, I now plan to work directly with the children. My plan includes:
Lastly and most importantly, I would like to help children understand, in a way they can naturally accept, that we are made alive, loved and protected by the connections we make to all the people, creatures and things we meet as we journey through life, and that we must treat all of these with respect.