Monday, November 4th, 2013

Cross-Cultural Differences in Discipline in Japan

Japanese Cross Cultural Differences in Discipline/ © shutterstock

My kids and I were hanging out at the cafe next door when a mom and her three-year-old daughter from the playgroup we go to popped in for coffee and cake. My daughter was so excited to see the familiar face of her playgroup friend that she grabbed a high chair and propped it up next to her. That girl brought along her dolly and my daughter wanted to play with it as well, despite the former’s obvious possessiveness with her doll. I hovered near their table sensing the impending disaster i.e. a doll tug-of-war, with coffee and cake crashing to the floor as a result. I reminded my daughter to take turns with the doll but she started to pull on it so I told her that we were going to go home if she doesn’t let up. The mom who, up to this point, was basically ignoring her daughter (and us) and engrossed in whatever it was she was reading suddenly looked up and talked to me about “kodomo no sekai” (children’s world) and how perhaps I should just leave the kids alone to work out what they need to. I don’t know how much she would still subscribe to kodomo no sekai should my daughter pull out her daughter’s hair.


In that particular playgroup of about 12 to 15 moms, I noticed that I was the only mom who actively restrains her child — I was the only foreigner, and the rest are Japanese. Whenever my daughter misbehaves (i.e. grabs a toy, hits another child etc.), I would pull her aside and give her a time-out. Several times, the leader of the playgroup would catch me before I pull my daughter out for a time out and tell me, “Daijobu. Daijobu,” meaning, ‘It’s okay’ and ‘just let her be.’ I didn’t feel like it was okay and I cannot just let her be.


I started to wonder, how, if ever, do the moms discipline their children. When do they intervene? From what I have observed at the playgroup, they seem not to. One little girl (about three years old) playfully hit the head of the playgroup leader while we were singing songs in a circle.  I watched the leader continue smiling and singing, unmindful of the nuisance the girl was being. The girl’s mother didn’t try to stop her daughter either. Another boy (also three years old) ran around screaming at the top of his lungs and poking and provoking the other kids. His mother just continued chatting with the other moms. It was quite a surreal experience to witness all this.


Was this non-interfering style of parenting anomalous to this playgroup? I’m not too sure. When I talked to my friend who manages a cafe, she complained that it’s the Japanese kids who would run around like wild animals, disturbing the other patrons, while their parents continue eating and chatting, not doing anything to keep them in check. Foreign kids seem more well behaved, or at least their parents made sure they did. As if to provide me with a case in point, two boys (about seven or eight years old) with their shirts off, ran past me as they horsed around noisily. One of them teased my daughter by pulling her hair. “That’s not nice,” I said. He mocked my English. Their parents were nowhere to be found.


I find it ironic that in a society that values peace and harmony, Japanese parents allow their kids to be meiwaku (nuisance, troublesome) to others. Maybe they do discipline their kids but I just completely miss it because I’m expecting a certain way to do it. At today’s playgroup, a girl propped her feet up on the table right in front of me where we had our lunch set out and started to haul the rest of her body up. I said, “Sumimasen…” (“Excuse me”) to get the attention of the girl’s mother. The mother who was busy with their lunchbox turned to her daughter and told, no, pleaded with her daughter to get down the table. I was mystified. It almost strikes me as if the parents are afraid of their kids getting mad at them or not liking them. I wonder whether the parents have a different way of disciplining their kids at home versus in public, especially in a society where face is very important. I cannot know for sure. Japanese grow up to be pretty decent adults so when does the magic transformation take place? My husband who has lived with a Japanese family for a while said that his host mother would pretty much let her kids run wild because she knows that once they step into elementary school, they will shape up because that kind of behavior will not be tolerated.


So how much is too much parental intervention? How much is too little? What is a reasonable amount of intervention across cultures?


Editor’s note: An excellent book about parenting around the world that covers Japan in depth is Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us by Christine Gross-Loh. From the book, I learned that the “non-interfering style” of Japanese parenting is very much a parenting philosophy rooted in their belief of the magic of childhood.

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For Sherilyn, Asia is home. Born in Hong Kong, Sherilyn grew up in the Philippines, worked for a while in Xiamen, China, and now lives in Japan. She speaks English, Filipino, Chinese (or putonghua), and Hokkien, her family's local dialect. As a certified foodie, Japan is a haven. Her favorite Japanese comfort food is a steaming bowl of ramen (which she once had twice in a day!). She received her Master of Arts Degree in Applied Social Psychology from the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines as a recipient of the SYLFF Fellowship and is an environmental psychologist. At heart, she is a teacher, and she believes that the best lessons are lived and taught by example. She practices yoga and finds that it helps keep her grounded, balanced and mindful. She is mom to two wee ones, ages almost three and eight months. She blogs at

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsaylatwork   |  Monday, 04 November 2013 at 1:49 pm

    How interesting! Especially when you consider how polite Japanese adults are. I am a Brit in the Netherlands and I raise my children to say please and thank you. Dutch people will often say “S/he doesn’t need to say that to me!” but that’s not the point. They need to say it for *me*! I too intervene a lot more than local parents, so I really enjoyed reading this, thanks! (And let us know if you find out when the magic transformation happens!)

  2. Commentstara   |  Monday, 04 November 2013 at 6:31 pm

    same is true for parenting in India i found. The little kids run amok and are babied to no end – the explanation being that “once they are in school, their whole world will be rules and study and behaving, let them enjoy childhood so they remember these days…”

  3. CommentsCasey   |  Tuesday, 05 November 2013 at 1:11 pm

    I’ve noticed similar differences when I am with my son in Colombia, though it varies there based on class. Lower class parents let their children have more freedom because they know that the rest of their lives they’ll have a teacher or boss shouting orders at them, whereas middle class kids are heavily disciplined, far beyond what I think as a middle class NorthAmerican is necessary to show that they are bien criados well raised kids. I don’t know about upper class kids so much, but when I see them at the park with their nannies, they seem to run all over them.

  4. CommentsYama   |  Thursday, 19 December 2013 at 4:04 pm

    I’ve seen the similar things happening among Japanese moms in California, US. Although I’m Japanese, I’m pretty strict about my children’s public behaviors and interactions with others. Like you, I would intervene if I see inappropriate behaviors of children. I had opportunities to put my children into an elementary school and a kinder for one month in Japan. To my surprise, most children behaved well at school. They knew how to talk to adults, make lines, and stay still at the morning meeting (so called “choorei.”) I had a feeling that kinder was when teachers started teaching public behaviors. Till then, most parents’ didn’t seem to matter much as their behaviors would be corrected at school anyway. I don’t agree with the way but seems majority of Japanese accepts it.

  5. Commentsmfan2   |  Wednesday, 02 April 2014 at 8:45 pm

    My thinking is that Japanese “spoil” their children. Not in a bad way, but in the way that most youngest children in the U.S. are treated. The result is that it often only takes a look from their parents to reign in their older kids, because this is like an earthquake to the children.. Growing up in a large family, we were all often disciplined except for the “baby” of the family: my little brother. It only took one remark or look from my dad to freak him out because it wasn’t something he was used to dealing with, and I have to admit he was probably the mos well behaved of the kids. I heard it normally only takes a hint of a sign of withdrawal of affection from Japanese mothers to make their kids very contrite.

  6. CommentsZain   |  Saturday, 30 August 2014 at 6:56 am

    I think they let them run while while young because of how oppressed they will be when grown up. They must think of it as some sort of compensation as what is to come.

  7. CommentsNathaniel   |  Wednesday, 17 February 2016 at 7:19 am

    I don’t understand. I always thought that discipline was a major part of far East culture. (no racism intended of course). So I’m a little confused. Were the examples mentioned in the article considered exceptions in that mentality or there is something I’m missing here?

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