Rachelle Chouinard: Volunteering with Nico Toma at Kyodai Hospital

As I explained in my previous post, my CIP this semester has been volunteering with Nico Toma, an organization which holds events for children in the long-term care ward for children at Kyoto University Hospital. Aside from spending time with the children in the ward, I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time with children outside of the hospital, as my host sister and her young children often come over for dinner. My contact with my temporary host mom and her young children whom I lived with while my Okaasan was on vacation for several weeks has also given me ample opportunity to see how Japanese children are socialized, especially at the age when they are really beginning to be able to express themselves. Throughout my contact with Japanese children, it has become clear that Japanese children and American children are extremely similar in most ways; they talk about the same sorts of things, are shy in the same ways, and express their opinions in the same adamant ways, especially around the ages of two and three.

I have, however, noticed some differences in the ways in which Japanese children refer to themselves. Many of the young children I have come into contact with under the age of four referred to themselves only in the third person, it’s always “Miwa wants this” or “Miwa feels that”. Initially I was very surprised by these conversations with children, as it struck me as very unnatural, in comparison with American children, for whom the ability to use the word “I” represents a crucial step in the psychological development of the child. Children are liberally encouraged to use the word “I” to express their own wants and feelings, and in America this phenomenon is often spoken of as a crucial step in the development of the child’s ability to distinguish itself from the world around it, as the use of such language reinforces these boundaries. I find this delayed use of the word “I” among Japanese children very interesting, especially in regards to its role in the socialization of these children. Does this delayed use of the singular pronoun have meaning in the context of the development of the individual’s identity? Although referring to oneself is admittedly more complicated than in English, is that the only reason to delay the use of “I”, especially when children are being taught concepts that are just as abstract, such a basic verb conjugations? Does this process further the group socialization of Japanese children by delaying the use of the singular pronoun and thus reinforcing group consciousness and cooperation when children are finally taught to refer to themselves as part of a group, maintaining the psychological distance between one’s name and one’s identity? Although I have been unable to come up with any concrete reasons for this phenomenon, I am very interested in hearing what other people think about it, if anyone else has noticed.

I guess, in closing, although my experience with my CIP was different than I expected, it was overall a very rewarding experience. Most of my time was spent conversing with other volunteers about aspects of American culture and the differences between Japan and America, but the considerable amount of time that I did get to spend playing with the children was very enlightening. I love playing with kids, and I spend most of my free time back home volunteering for a day care or babysitting, so while I enjoyed the chance to do an activity which as comforting and familiar, I was somewhat un prepared for the emotional commitment. Knowing that all of the children I was playing with were ill, and seeing them all connected to tubes and machines, some of them even unable to spend half an hour doing a quiet activity without having to return to their room, was much more upsetting than I had anticipated. I guess it was just the difference between understanding something intellectually and seeing it in person. Overall, though, volunteering with Nico Toma has been a very beneficial experience, as I am now able to more comfortably converse with older Japanese women and had a chance to do something good with my time.

2 thoughts on “Rachelle Chouinard: Volunteering with Nico Toma at Kyodai Hospital

  1. I think your theory is really interesting and worth thinking/studying a bit more. Perhaps such phenomenon could also explain why, at least in public places, Japanese people seem to put the group’s needs (i.e. the society, the train station, etc.) ahead of one’s own?

    • Yeah, I do agree that there does seem to be a very intense focus overall on putting the needs of the many over the needs of the individual in most areas of Japanese society. But, as far as riding the trains go, I think that that is one of the places which everyone apparently just agrees to be completely rude and look out for only themselves. I find it humor and confusing that old ladies will try to shove me onto the tracks just to get to the platform first. I also wonder why the socialization is still so group-centered. Do you think it has anything to do with the Neo-Confucian relationships that we discussed in history? 🙂