Kodomo refers to child or children. A typical image of children might be from the age of three to twelve (the end of primary school) or fifteen (the end of junior high school, i.e., compulsory education). Nevertheless, the definition varies even depending on the areas of law and regulation. For example, in Japan the legal age for drinking alcohol, smoking and marriage without parental consent as well as for voting is 20, while the age of consent ranges from 13 to 17 depending on the laws and parental approval. Individuals above 18 would be legally treated similar to adults with criminals under the age of 20 punished according to Japan’s rehabilitation-oriented juvenile law.

The concept of ‘children’ or childhood accepted today is relatively new in Japan  when compared historically with other Western countries. Until the Edo period (1603-1868), the children of commoners were generally regarded as ‘immature adults’ and urged to work as soon as possible.. Through the Edo period, however, private institutions for primary education (e.g., Terakoya) for commoners became progressively popular particularly in cities-. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan fervently adopted aspects of  Western culture that critically changed the concept of childhood. Children’s literature were introduced as translations or adaptations, beginning with Frances Hodgson Burnett’sLittle Lord Fauntleroy. Translated by Shizuko Wakamatsu (1890-1892), the book taught children the importance of empathy and independence. A wide range of children’s story books, picture books and magazines were also published. The concept of dōshin (lit. child’s heart) was also promoted by Miekichi Suzuki’s magazine for children, Akai tori (lit. Red Bird). It stressed children’s innocence and empathy as essential human values. This perception influenced the thematic development of Japanese children’s literature to include beautiful yet often sorrowful storylines, involving deaths, hardships and self-sacrifices. As for more action stories, kamishibai (lit. paper drama, narrating stories while showing pictures on at the street corner) were popular entertainment for children. Manga for children also became popular from the 1930s and some expensive hardcover manga books (e.g., Norakuro) were published. However, they ceased publication from 1941 due to war-time censorship.

The postwar period saw tremendous changes in Japanese society, including the concept of childhood. Along with the growth of postwar baby-boomers, manga then anime were widely and rapidly developed by ambitious, talented artists (e.g., Osamu Tezuka) and became an integral part of Japanese childhood. Initially many manga stories were classified as children’s manga (largely for boys), however, the works diversified, creating readerships aimed at young children, boys (shōnen), girls (shōjo) as well as male and female adults.

With Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1980s, consumerism increasingly penetrated society and positioned children as influential consumers. At the same time, competition intensified and children were forced to devote their childhood to study. Domestically secluded, manga, anime and computer games became an indispensable part of children’s lives. Children’s manga and anime today are often narrowly used for works which are mild, humoristic and asexual. They are typified by Doraemon (1969) and Pocket Monsters (1996), which are aggressively exploited across a range of mixed media formats and merchandise as well as educational aids.

Long recessions and the encroachment of advanced communication technologies into everyday life, have changed childhood further by blurring the boundary between children and adults. Childhood may no longer be as clearly defined as an independent stage in everyone’s life but diversified largely depending on each individual and their family circumstance.

Mio Bryce

Further Reading

  • Bryce, Mio. “Pollyanna: Transformation in the Japanese context”. In Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna A Children’s Classic at 100. Edited by Roxanne Harde and Lydia Kokkola..Jackson: University Press of Mississippi: 227-245. 2014. Print.
  • Field, Norma. “The Child as Laborer and Consumer: The Disappearance of Childhood in Contemporary Japan.” In Children and the Politics of Culture.Edited by Sharon Stephens. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 51-78. 1995. Print.
  • Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. Print.