In America, try not to kancho your friends


A few weeks ago NYT ran this great article about the difficulties of raising a son in both Japanese and American cultures:

My Un-American Son


Getting Yataro ready for his first sleep-away camp overseas is turning out to be much more than counting T-shirts and towels. I’m having to review the way children interact here to see which behaviors would go against American codes of conduct. American parents have higher standards than Japanese when it comes to acceptable behavior among children.

Take “kancho” for instance, a popular prank where kids creep up on and poke each other with pointed finger in the behind, shouting “kancho!” or enema. That would likely have the camp counselors in America alleging sexual abuse.

Kancho certainly isn’t encouraged in Japan — a friend of mine is convinced her daughter failed a preschool entrance exam because she playfully jabbed her mother in the rear during the interview. But Japanese parents usually bestow only a mild rebuke.

Please head on over to NYT to read the original article!

Other differences mentioned:

  • In Japan, racial epithets directed at her half-white son tend to be tolerated (and he is apparently not fazed by them), but in America they would be a cause for great concern.
  • In sports, coaches and other players tend to use positive reinforcement, while in Japan when her son makes a mistake he is told to “stop screwing up.” This might mean her son could take praise far too seriously and not understand where he needs to improve (his English language skills, in this case).
  • As someone from a country where communal bathing is common, her son might not understand the more chaste attitudes toward nudity and privacy in America.
  • Her son has never been given truly “free” time or open-ended choices, while the summer camp he is to attend consists of almost nothing but free time and freedom to choose.
  • In Japan she wouldn’t think twice about scolding using insults to scold her children, but American parents who see that behavior might think it’s abusive.

All these observations ring very true, though obviously your mileage may vary. I thank my lucky stars every day that I’ve never been kancho’d.

What I like best about this piece is that she resists the temptation to theorize or lecture about which society has the better practices. That’s the right approach because proclaiming one country’s education/child-rearing regime to be superior to the other’s does nothing to help Yataro navigate his new summer camp. By talking from her own experiences as someone who has had to navigate both societies (and offering some speculation about how Americans at the summer camp will react), she is able to shed light on cultural differences without getting into ultimately unhelpful broad conclusions. And in the process she has given us an entertaining and enlightening case study in the form of her own son. I look forward to the follow up article to hear how Yataro fared.

(A Google search for “Maki Katahira” “Kumiko Makihara” reveals several other articles about her son and life in Japan, along with this right-wing conspiracy theorist who implies she must be a CIA agent and part of the Trilateral Commission‘s plot to control Japan because she was married to former Newsweek Japan bureau chief William Powell (though apparently they divorced) and once worked as an executive assistant for a firm partially owned by private equity group Ripplewood. I don’t want to lend any credibility to this crackpot, but even if she is working for the man, this is still a pretty great article)

35 thoughts on “In America, try not to kancho your friends”

  1. “I thank my lucky stars every day that I’ve never been kancho’d.”

    Clearly you had a less complete high school experience than me.

  2. While she does not overtly choose to elevate one culture over another, the language she uses clearly casts one in a more favorable light than the other based on word choices. There is an obvious bias, it just not spelled out by saying, “one is better than the other.”

    My guess is that an editor at the New York Times cleaned it up a bit to remove more pejorative portions. It has a certain stilted feel to the flow which suggests more had been said, but was removed.

  3. Maybe, but even if it was edited, don’t you think this level of fairness is rare, especially for the NYT?

    I liked the more balanced approach because it lets me make my own judgment that if possible I never want to put my kids through the Japanese education system.

  4. Ah, that was a slip of the keyboard. My actual search was for the right person though, so those results still apply. Fixed.

  5. This reminds me of a story.

    A friend of mine has run a private english school for about 20 years but also recently starting teaching at a few elementary schools. He is usually on “kancho alert,” but let his guard down one day in front of the class and a kid nailed him perfectly, slipped right in (his words not mine).

    I’m pretty sure that this kid had never considered the possibility of, after a successful kancho, not getting his finger back, which is exactly what happened after my friend squeezes his cheeks. You can probably imagine the pandemonium that resulted as my friend pretended not to notice there was a (now very panicked) kid stuck to his ass and went about his business at the chalkboard.

  6. See, in the US both he and the child would be branded sex offenders for the rest of their lives after that. Also anyone who saw it, and a few people passing by outside for good measure.

  7. Seriously, the slant of the piece does seem superficially pro-US, but stuff like “American parents have higher standards than Japanese when it comes to acceptable behavior among children” or “Japanese don’t bother much with reasoning when scolding children. We denounce and shame” strikes me as more of a Dave Barry-style tongue-in-cheek roast of her own roots than a sincere denunciation of one country over another.

  8. “American parents have higher standards than Japanese when it comes to acceptable behavior among children”

    Yeah, “American” here clearly means “upper middle class Americans around where I live”.

  9. Maybe I was reading into it, but I took that line to mean parents in the US are more uptight about it. And it sounded like she was fine with scolding and shaming since that’s what she does and it seems to work.

    Well, I think even lower class families would tend more toward the positive reinforcement in the US just because of the attitude about child-rearing here. Not all poor households are like the Judd Nelson character’s family in The Breakfast Club.

  10. There are certainly poorer families in the United States that tend toward positive reinforcement and a warm family atmosphere in general. There are also, no doubt, neighborhoods and classrooms where a beating would be more common than a rear admiral. In any case, don’t these types of comparisons, whenever they pop up in Japan or the United States, involve creating mass middle class fantasies to compare?

  11. “In Japan she wouldn’t think twice about scolding her children, but American parents who see that behavior might think it’s abusive.”

    As a non-American (UK) could someone explain that to me?

  12. M-Bone hits the nail on the head. My first reaction was “Wait a sec, Japanese parents scold their kids?” But then I realized that I live on the Joban Line.

  13. Tony:

    Here is the relevant portion:

    “I might even have to modify my own behavior. Japanese don’t bother much with reasoning when scolding children. We denounce and shame. “Why are you so stupid? Everyone is staring at us,” I might say if Yataro is slow getting out of the car. Like my nephew would say, it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.”

    So I guess what I meant to say was “she wouldn’t worry about using an insult to scold her child”

  14. In my home country, and a few others, even shouting at a kid can get the police called on charges of abuse if it is seen by the wrong people. There are places it is even illegal to give them a smack.

    Excuse my ignorance for not being a Tokyo expert, but what has the Joban line got to do with it? Is it where it runs, through the shittamachi?

  15. Yes.It goes from shitamachi to Chiba,the backwater of Tokyo.

    Bill Powell was accusing TIME magazine for not allowing his ex-Japanese wife transferred to outside of Tokyo in published-only-in-Japan”Good Luck Japan,You’ll need it”(The Japanese title is less synical 頑張れニッポン) This was before he moved to more exciting post which was Yeltzin era-Moscow.頑張れ、ニッポン-ビル-パウエル/dp/448495219X

    He is now re-married with Chinese woman and now living in Shanghai working for TIME magazine.Americans.

  16. I don’t think it’s necessarily blind that this kid will face some issues at summer camp. Sure Yataro won’t be encountering any moms dancing on stripper poles, but he does need to remember not to kancho anyone.

    That site is just amazing btw

  17. Bryce: no, the idea is insane. I certainly resented it at the time, but to make it a criminal offence? Beating the living shit out of your kid is another matter of course.

  18. Jade: so you’re Australian? I was amazed how when I slapped my misbehaving 9-yo nephew in Sydney, I was warned that I could be arrested.

  19. Adamu: thanks. Perhaps not so different to the UK.

    I’m not sure “baka” classifies as an insult in Japan it’s so mild. But the thing that surprised me when I first came here was children calling their parents baka. That would raise a few eyebrows in the UK.

    One thing I still can’t get used to is children – often quite grown up – sitting on train while their parents stand nearby.

  20. Curzon: no, not Australian. The other one down there.
    That kid driving the family was insane. The site reminds me of the speech by Keanu Reeves in “Parenthood” about how you need a licence for a dog but any fool can havb a kid.

  21. OK, on I’ve seen several studio photos of the pregnant mom naked or half naked just like in that article the other day that was making it out to be some kind of “whacky Japan” trend. Nice job with that journalism.

  22. “Beating the living shit out of your kid is another matter of course.”

    That’s why the law exists, so as to not offer severe offenders a chance to get away with beating up their children by arguing reasonable force. The law gives the police discretion, and as far as I can tell, they are not prosecuting anyone for a light tap.

    (For those of you who don’t know what we are talking about, sorry. If you care, here’s a link:

    I’m voting “yes”, but that’s because the family first type people just piss me off more than the other crowd. If they were anywhere near reasonable, I just wouldn’t vote at all.

  23. I don’t want to sidetrack the thread into something way off course, but it seems to me that “inconsequential” is also a bit fluffy, and all that is needed is a better definition of “reasonable” force. In other words, the current state has it that everyone who smacks is a criminal, but the police have the discretion not to prosecute. So it criminalizes people and gives the cops too much discretion. It’s akin to making the speed limit zero and letting the cops decide who to pull over, vs the Montana experiment with “reasonable and prudent” daytime speeds–which were overturned as being too undefined and leading to unfair prosecution. Anyway, this is about kancho – which I have never had done, at least, and any kid who tries it is going to lose some fingers – not smacking.

    The Epoch Times, which I had never heard of, has an interesting connection with China and anti-commie Chinese voices….

  24. “Epoch Times is an official Falun Gong publication.”

    Yeah, but their non-China stuff is not at all bad. It is like they are trying to get you to read their other news so that they can use it as a delivery vehicle for their propaganda.

    The NZ angle is kind of relevant. The original article highlighted the problems one faces when moving children from one social context to another. Seems to me that the conflicting strands of social programming that cause those problems to appear are both present in some places, even when you are not talking about a question of immigration (although there were a lot of reports a few years ago about Pacific Island immigrants to Auckland hitting their kids). The author of the NYTimes piece seems to suggest there are clear (legal?) standards for what both kids and parents can and cannot do in the states–even when it involves something like kancho, but is this really the case?

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