The Japanese way of disciplining children

By Kate Lewis

How are Japanese families disciplining their children — and how are they eliciting good behavior in the first place? I wasn’t the only American mother asking this question.

One of the great misconceptions I had upon moving to Japan was that its children were perfectly self-disciplined from birth. I pictured tiny automatons, listening to their parents with respect, quietly following all the rules with innate obedience and precision.

From our early trips on the trains, this certainly seemed to be the case. Children younger than my two-year-old son sat in silence and stillness on the plush train seats, whereas my child treated the captive audience of the car as his own private performance arena: dancing, jumping, doling out charming smiles to the indulgent passengers who (thankfully) never truly seemed to mind his antics. While I whispered urgent reprimands, the Japanese mothers seemed to radiate calm serenity, their children seated beside them in well-behaved glory.

My son wasn’t behaving badly, exactly. There was simply an obvious cultural difference in how he was expected to behave and what his Japanese peers were taught. I began to wonder: how exactly are Japanese families disciplining their children? How are they eliciting such perfect behavior in the first place?

Managing “Ma no Nisai” (The Terrible Two’s)

I wasn’t the only American mother asking myself this question. Finding a misbehaving Japanese toddler became something of a game with other international mom friends whenever we took our children to parks and museums. If we caught sight of Japanese toddlers having an elusive tantrum in public, we would sigh to ourselves in relief. It wasn’t just our children. It was everyone’s. Yet the Japanese parents seemed not to intervene at all. The child would sit on the ground, crying and screaming at the playground or park, and the parents seemed relatively unconcerned.

During one of my son’s epic tantrums, where we cleared out a train car on the Yamanote line from Shinjuku, I was at a complete loss. He decided he most emphatically did not want to ride the train home, but we absolutely needed to do so. Unable to fully restrain him because I was cradling my newborn daughter, my son tried with all his might to leave the train before it departed, and I whispered a sincere Gomennasai (I’m sorry) to all the passengers brave enough to remain on the car with us. At that moment, I would have wholeheartedly welcomed someone else intervening — none of my disciplining tricks worked.

I spoke to my Japanese language teacher about the tantrum later, mentioning we have a phrase in English that describes this age in a child’s life: the terrible two’s. She nodded. “We do as well,” she laughed. “Ma no nisai. The Evil Age.”

Yet when I asked how people in Japan handled the ‘evil age,’ she just smiled mysteriously and moved on.

The Art of Shitsuke (Discipline)

One day, I inadvertently discovered why I’d never seen a Japanese child disciplined. Another day, another busy train, and this time it was another child throwing a tantrum about riding home. The father quickly pulled his entire family from the train car and as doors closed and the train sped away, I saw him crouch down on the now-empty platform to the misbehaving child and begin to scold. It was a revelation.

Click here to read more.

© Savvy Tokyo

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

Good article.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

A topic that's been flogged to death over the years - but still an interesting article for bringing up a couple of salient points - parents/caregivers seemingly being oblivious to childrens acts in public & then scolding/reprimanding kids in private. I've witnessed that.

And yet again it all seems to play into one of those "great paradoxes of Japan" cases.

Kids from an early age being taught to conform - and conform they do - sits alongside kids doing what they want disturbing others in the process.

And outsiders of a group will rarely attend to a childs bad behaviour. Never forget the two kids ( 5 & 7ish) playing tag in a bottle shop with the mother dreamily in another world not clued into what was going on at all. The embarrassed young male staff just watched it as bottles nearly went tumbling a number of times. Finally I said "Abunai" and it stopped - well sort of for a minute.

Could never figure that whole scene out. Still can't.

I guess no amount of molding will ever drill out the "kids are kids" all the time - in any culture.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Yet when I asked how people in Japan handled the ‘evil age,’ she just smiled mysteriously and moved on.

Very helpful.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

It's the rich kids and their parents who act up and behave like brats, I've found.

Entitled scum is entitled scum wherever you go.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

It's this great upbringing technique that's preventing all those students - even down to elementary school students, to committing suicide by train, right? yeah i thought not.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Yeah, this topic was played out by the time I moved to Japan in the 80's, the author could find a million articles and books on this.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Now I understand why their is so much child abuse in japan, its done when no one is looking and no one cares. On the other hand I am not coming to grips to understand why the kids kill their parents.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Could be the diet. Almost all the Japanese children I know do not have a sweet tooth or craving for sugary drinks. They prefer sea weeds, cheese triangles or other savory snacks. Now, when they get older that's a different story

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think to be more accurate the author could have added the generational differences as well. Raising children is perhaps the most important thing a society can do but yet we often neglect this to our own detriment.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites