Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Child's Play


You can learn a lot from children's games. I've recently come across this picture, from Embracing Defeat, John Dower's masterful account of Japan during the American occupation:

The children in it are playing panpan asobi ("GI and Prostitute Game"), in which boys and girls would re-enact the scenes they saw everyday - of American GIs parading around town with young Japanese women on their arms, probably on their way to a hotel somewhere.

The game was innocent enough - harmless mimicry like children's play all over the world - and it is notable how happy the kids in the picture look: despite the fact that older Japanese must have been deeply saddened by the spectacle, the game obviously served as a way for those involved to distract themselves from the drudgery of starvation, violence and misery in postwar Japan. The game itself was mixed with other forms of play, like runpen-gokko, in which the participants would pretend to be homeless vagrants, demo-asobi, in which they'd wave red flags like left-wing demonstrators, and, perhaps most bittersweet of all, kaidashi-gokko, "searching-for-food game".

First of all, we have to be careful not to paint the scene in too innocent a way. As Dower notes, "roundups of prostitutes included girls as young as fourteen, while schoolboys...quickly learned how to earn pocket money as pimps by leading GIs to women", he writes, indicating that innocent play often led to not-so-innocent practice as the children got older. But still, the picture leaves me feeling strangely optimistic. It tells me that progress, reform, and rebirth are possible.

There's a lot of angst in Britain these days about the state of the nation's youth, with UNICEF releasing a report placing Britain bottom of the heap in terms of child happiness in industrial countries, and almost daily stories detailing stabbings and gang violence amongst teenagers. But the picture shows that angst up for what it really is - just angst. Children are children, no matter what kind of lives they lead, and if the Japanese were able to mould their half-starved, war-weary, alchohol-addicted, poverty-stricken youth into the kind of people who could literally transform a nation, then I don't see why the British can't. All it takes is for adults to take responsibilty, to stop worrying, and go ahead and do it.

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