5 Differences Between Japanese and Western Parenting

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Japanese and Western parenting have some significant differences. What I experienced  growing up in suburban Atlanta was quite different than what Keiko saw in Osaka at the same time, but these are a few that seem to stand out in my mind. Keep in mind that these are broad generalizations, that every family is different, and that these aren’t all-encompassing or posed here as a “right versus wrong” context, but these are five that I noticed in my 12 years as a dad in Japan.

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5 Differences Between Japanese and Western Parenting

We’ve all heard the eastern & western differences regarding how societies regard the group and the individual. No need to point those out here, even though there are certainly outliers and holes in the logic for both. No, these are just a few other differences I’ve thought about over the years.

Being naked is no big deal

This is one of the biggest differences between Japanese and Western parenting. Whether it’s bath time, a trip to the onsen (hot springs) or just cooling down after a shower, Japanese families stay undressed in front of each other much longer than typically seen in Western parenting practices. Public baths have been around for a long time here. These are segregated by gender of course, but at home kids usually shower with everyone, including grandparents. That changes once puberty kicks in, and for the obvious reasons: their bodies are changing, and teens should adjust to having boobs or boners on their own.

My wife and I still shower with our kids, although now that we’ve left Japan, it’s much less often as the spaces to bathe are generally only big enough for one person. Bodies aren’t something to be ashamed of, but that’s how it can feel back stateside. When we visit my parents in Atlanta, I strip down with my kids and head to the tub. My mom, like most American moms seeing their grown son buck-naked, will awkwardly stare at the ceiling at first until she realizes that it’s no big deal. And what is the big deal, actually? Granted, I’ll admit that don’t really want to see my parents naked, but if we went to a changing room or a hot spring in Japan, I’d have no problem with it.

Japanese shower rooms make group bathing a lot easier. Not only are they the best way to bathe (as I’ve stated before), but they are large enough for a family of four, with two washing off/hanging out while the other two have a soak in a deep tub. This was often one of the most enjoyable parts of my day, because the kids are relaxed and getting sleepy, and that’s often when interesting conversations start. And if kids have any anatomy-related questions (“I’m gonna grow hair WHERE?”) they can have them answered earlier than later.

Eating Together < Eating While Stationary

I grew up believing that meal time was family time. And that it was most certainly a time when the family should sit together. Keiko wasn’t raised that way. When she was a kid, her dad ate whenever he sat down. He didn’t wait for anyone. She and her sisters followed suit and would just start eating once they were ready, not waiting for their mom — the exact woman who was busting her ass to get the food on the table in the first place. Keiko turned out the same way: once the food was on the table, she’d tell the kids to go ahead and start eating while she finished whatever she was doing.

This doesn’t fly with me. If we’re all home and eating, I want us sitting together. There is plenty of evidence to back me up on this one.

Granted, part of this is not simply Japanese culture for us as much as it was an exercise in city-living expediency: everyone was in a rush to get to work or school, so the sooner the kids shovel in their scrambled eggs, the better. But I think we were sacrificing something.

Now on the other hand, many Japanese feel that eating should always be done while stationary, preferably sitting down. Keiko makes sure the kids have completely finished whatever is in their mouth before they stand up, even if it’s just to get a fork from the kitchen. I’ve seen a number of other parents do this as well.

You’ll see this around town, as well. Tachinomi (literally “stand-and-drink” establishments) have made a comeback in Tokyo, and I love these places, but you’ll rarely see someone drinking a soda or eating a snack as they walk. Instead, most people stand next to the store or vending machine until they finish consuming their purchase and then throw away the can, bag or wrapper before moving on. Walking and eating, while not completely taboo, is just not something that’s done in Japan very much.

Sleep in the Same Room

In Western parenting circles, you’ll often hear debates about when a child should start sleeping in their own room, usually while still a baby. You won’t hear that as much in Japan, as many families sleep in the same room together well into a kids’ teenage years. Part of this likely stemmed from issues of space — kids didn’t have their own room because there simply wasn’t an extra room for them to have — but there is another component to it that deals with a family staying close together.

For most of the decade-plus we lived in Tokyo the four of us slept in a simple six-tatami mat room. I guess this might be called co-sleeping in western parenting, but I’d never really thought about it like that until I found people debating its merits online. We laid down three futons over a 6-tatami-mat room, so it was like one big bed. For a year or so, the kids had bunk beds and Keiko and I slept in the other bedroom, but once we decided to start traveling again, we sold the sofa and the beds.

And you know what? We actually liked it better. We get to share a few extra moments with them as they drift off, and then wake next to them as well. We’re not all spooning or anything — we’re just sleeping in the same room, not necessarily the same bed. Three futons across gives us all enough room, and many families separate all the futons and beds.

Keiko and I sleep in the center so I have her by my side. If we want some intimate time, we just head to the living room — problem solved.

When I mention our sleeping arrangements to some people in the States or other Western parenting advocates, I get that look — you know the one: like I’m either a pervert or some kind of freakishly attached helicopter parent who believes in breast-feeding children until they graduate from high school.

I am neither of these things, but to me, sleeping like we did was just more natural, at least while they were little. Now that we have a teen and tween, they need their own space. If we had stayed in Japan for another decade, we would have sorted their own rooms once puberty rolled around, and for similar reasons to bathing separately. I can’t speak for the females, but I know that when I was a teen, parts of me (ahem) woke up before the rest of me did,  and I would have been horrified for that to be on display for the entire family.

A Lot Less Public Praise & Affection

This may be the biggest of the difference between Japanese and Western parenting, and I have a natural bias here because I grew up in a family that smothers you with hugs while telling you how wonderful you are. Here in Japan? Not so much. I have some Japanese friends who don’t like physical contact at all, and that took some getting used to.

My kids were born and raised in Tokyo, but fortunately they have come to like (and need) our hugs and kisses. Keiko has spent enough time with my family that she’s just as physical with them as I am, but other kids in Japan don’t get as much — at least publicly.

As for the praise, I’m torn. I believe that too much of the wrong kind of praise can do more harm than good. I believe in complimenting them on working hard and for showing perseverance, but not just saying how smart, beautiful and talented they are.

Don’t get me wrong, I still tell them that they are smart, talented and “special,” but I try to footnote that by saying that there are millions of other smart, talented and special people in the world. Some of them succeed through luck or privilege, but the rest succeed by working hard, constantly learning and never giving up.

In a twisted form of humility, many Japanese put down their spouses or children in front of others. It’s not meant to be cruel, usually. You know when someone compliments a woman’s dress and she says something like “Oh, this old thing? It’s nothing.” It’s kind of like that, but a little more cringe-inducing for me. Fortunately, however, I’ve seen less of this over the years.

Different Attitude Towards Independence

One criticism of the Japanese education system is that it doesn’t encourage kids to think for themselves. While there is some truth to this, I’ve seen it bestow responsibilities on children that you would never see in today’s Western parenting practices.

For example, in my son’s 3rd grade class, they operated stoves, mixed chemicals and boiled water basically on their own. We’re talking two dozen open flames and glass bowls, thirty 8-year-old kids and ONE teacher. That just doesn’t happen that often in the States.

Kids have their own train passes, sometimes crossing the city with heavy bags by themselves. Kids play outside on their own much more than in the states nowadays, but this is perhaps based on Japan’s safety record more than anything else. Either way, it seems that American kids are encouraged to think for themselves more while Japanese kids are allowed to do things by themselves more.

I’m sure there are more differences than these. What have you seen? And where do you agree/disagree?

Comments

  1. Hi Guys,
    enjoying your site so much, my little piece of adventure whenever I check in. Thanks for sharing all your stories and insights, very inspiring and comforting at the same tim
    All the best
    Penny

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