After being here for almost two years, very little surprises or impresses me anymore. As a result, there is often little to blog about. There aren’t anymore crises in the grocery store or unfortunate experiences with a squatty potty. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t still loving Japan, in fact it is quite the opposite. We love Japan so much and have settled here so completely that our life is seamless and easy here. And that leaves very little to write about.
However, there are times when I am absolutely stunned and impressed with the way things work here. Sometimes I take notice of those moments and want, desperately, to write about them. But then I forget them. Sometimes I remember the moment and write it down in my handy little notebook, but still forget to write about it and by the time I look at my little notebook all the details that made the event or experience so poignant have left my mind. Luckily this isn’t the case with an experience I had just a few days ago.
I went for a brief outing to the post office with Ewan. We mailed out four packages to various family and friends back home (watch your mailboxes! it might be you!) which had languished in our apartment for many months as time had just escaped us. As we walked home afterwards, we were joined by masses of elementary school students since the neighborhood school had just let out for the day.
Just a quick sidenote before the story continues. Most elementary and junior high school students go to their neighborhood schools in Japan. These schools, for the most part, are within walking distance (the concept of walking distance is quite liberal here, anything under 30-45 minutes is safely considered walking distance) and students are expected to make their way, on their own. Some schools even have rules about how students can go to school, often times they are not allowed to be driven in cars or ride their bikes.
In the morning, elementary students gather at various areas of the neighborhood and walk together in groups. Each group has older students (carrying a little flag) and younger students with highly visible bright yellow backpacks. The older students are in charge and expected to help the younger students get to school safely. The reverse is true in the afternoon. There aren’t any parents walking with them, there aren’t lines of cars outside the school gates dropping off and picking up kids. Just a bunch of kids walking together. Keep in mind that we aren’t living in a small idyllic town here, our city is over 300,000 people which is about the same size as Milwaukee, WI.
Well, on this particular afternoon when I was walking with and watching the students, they were particularly energetic. It was a beautiful, sunny early summer day. The students were running and playing as they walked home, but always remembering (or being reminded by older students) to stop and look both ways at driveways and intersections. One group of boys were being particularly rambunctious and they were playing a game of tag as they made their way home. One boy in an effort to stay away from the boy that was “it” ended up tripping over his own feet. Before anyone could help him he was on the ground, with scraped knees, elbows and a nice sized cut on his face.
As can be expected of a young child he immediately started to cry, and the kids gathered around him to offer help and support. They responded so quickly and sensitively, but they also realized that helping him was beyond their abilities. And this is what impressed me. The older students instantly assessed the situation, realized it was too much for them to handle, and two of them ran to the nearest shop (a tiny stationary shop) and went inside. Just a few seconds later, the students and the stationary shop employee came out to the students aid.
You may be wondering what was so impressive about this? Well, there were a few things that stood out to me. First, the older students (probably 3rd or 4th grade – 8 to 10 years old) had the ability to assess the situation quickly and know that it was beyond their capabilities and that they needed help. This sort of responsiveness and responsibility is not an easy thing to learn, so I commend the parents and teachers here for teaching these students how to stay calm and respond in a crisis, even if it is just a little one.
Second, the students knew who to go ask for help. Unlike in America where students are so inundated with the message of “stranger danger” that they don’t always know which adults they can trust and which ones might scoop them up and take them away (even though this type of crime is very rare), these students knew instantly to go into a neighborhood shop and ask for help. There wasn’t any hesitation, the students sprung into action when the need arose.
Third, and perhaps most surprising, the stationary store employee left the store where she was the only one working to go about a block away and help the students out. She didn’t hesitate or lock the door, despite the fact that in this cash-based society there was likely a register filled with bills. Her willingness to help the students, her ability to trust that the shop would be fine even without anyone watching out for it was, to this American, truly surprising.
All this may not seem that amazing, but I really do think, especially coming from an American perspective that it is. I think it is incredible and refreshing that students here still walk to school ALONE. In America I feel like this is becoming more and more rare as parents are all to ready to load their kids into the car and drive them, even if it is truly a walkable distance. Also, as I mentioned earlier there doesn’t seem to be the fear of strangers and the impression that unknown adults should be considered dangerous. The students knew that they could trust an adult, even one that they didn’t know.
Now, I’m not sure on the actual numbers here, and crime rates against children might be lower here than in the U.S., but I, along with many others, do think that the “stranger danger” hype is overblown. Sure, the crime rate may be higher (I don’t even know this for sure) but those strangers that aren’t dangerous vastly outnumber those that are. Teaching children to fear adults they don’t know as a blanket rule does a disservice to everyone. Surely, it would have been a great disservice if the Japanese students in this story felt that way. The poor boy with the scraped knees and elbows would have cried, lying in the middle of the sidewalk, with only other children trying, rather unsuccessfully, to help him. Somehow, the help offered by a pack of elementary school students isn’t as good as a caring adult (even one that is a stranger), giving you the once over, helping you back to your feet and calmly reassuring you that, despite the blood, you will be okay. That’s what the stationary store employee did, a simple act, but a powerful one nonetheless.