Monday, June 17, 2013

Children's Play in Postwar Japan

I've been reading John Dower's Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999), which won a stack of awards and so far seems to deserve every one. A section on children in the early postwar years:
Children's games can provide a barometer of their times. With consumerism of any sort still in the distant future, youngsters were thrown back on their imaginations, and their play became a lively measure of the obsessions of adult society. Not long before, boys in particular had played war with a chilling innocence of what they were being encouraged to become. They donned headbands and imagined themselves piloting the planes that would, in fact, never return . . . In defeat, there was no such clear indoctrination behind children's games. Essentially, they played at doing what they saw grownups do. It was a sobering sight. . . .

The games were happy -- that was the point of playing, after all -- but in ways that almost invariably tended to sadden grownups, for they highlighted so clearly and innocently the pathos that war and defeat had brought into their lives. Early in 1946, for example, it was reported that the three most popular activities among small boys and girls were yamiichigokko, panpan asobi, and demo asobi -- that is, holding a mock black market, playing prostitute and customer, and recreating left-wing political demonstrations.

Black market games -- hawkers and their wares -- might be seen in retrospect as a kind of school for small entrepreneurs, but to grownups at the time they were simply another grim reminder of the necessity of engaging in illegal activity to make ends meet. Panpan asobi, prostitution play, was even harder for parents to behold, for panpan was a postwar euphemism for freelance prostitutes who catered almost exclusively to the GI trade. A photograph from early 1946 shows laughing youngsters in shabby clothes reenacting this -- a boy wearing a soft GI hat, his arm hooked into that of a little girl wearing patched pants. In the "demo" game, children ran around waving red paper flags. . . .

As time passed, the playtime repertoire expanded. In mid-1947, a teacher is Osaka reported that  his pupils seemed absorbed in playing "train" games, using the teacher's platform at the front of the classroom as the center of their activities. In "repatriate train," children put on school knapsacks, jammed together on the dais, shook and trembled, and got off at "Osaka." "Special train" -- obviously a takeoff on the railway cars reserved for occupation personnel -- allowed only "pretty people" to get on. A "conductor" judged who was favored and who wasn't. A button missing? Rejected. Dirty face? Rejected. Those who passed these arbitrary hurdles sat in leisure on the train. Those rejected stood by enviously. In "ordinary train," everyone piled on, pushing and shoving, complaining about being stepped on, crying out for help. Every so often, the conductors balancing on the edges of the platform announced that the train had broken down and everyone had to get off. It was, the teacher lamented, a sorry spectacle: from playing war to playing at utter confusion.
"Repatriate train" would be a reference to the ships and trains bringing home some of the tens of thousands of Japanese children who had been living in the overseas empire, from Manchuria to Indonesia, including many thousands of orphans. The confusion of that process was so great that radio programs helping relocate relatives lost in the war ran until 1962.

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