Fun Facts #4: Indicative Postwar “Child’s Play”


Hi Blog. This will be my last blog entry for at least a week (if not until around May 7), as I will be cycling around Kyushu with friend Chris without email or probably web access.

So let’s break on a more pleasant note: From one of my favorite books on Japan (John Dower, EMBRACING DEFEAT, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning tome on the strategies Post-WWII Japanese society used to cope with losing a war), my favorite section (pp. 110-112). Brief comment follows:


Children’s games can provide a barometer of their times. With consumers of any sort still in the distant future, youngsters were thrown back on their imaginations, and their play became a lively measure of the obsessions of adult society. Not long before, boys in particular had played war with a chilling innocence of what they were being encouraged to become. They donned headbands and imagined themselves piloting the planes that would, in fact, never return. They played at being heroic sailors long after the imperial navy began to be decimated. Armed with wooden spears and bayonets, they threw themselves screaming at mock-ups of Roosevelt and Churchill and pretended they were saving the country from the foreign devils [48]. In defeat, there was no such clear indoctrination behind children’s games. Essentially, they played at doing what they saw grownups do. It was a sobering sight.

There were not many commerical toys in this world, although the first popular one after the war was revealing. In December 1945, a toy maker in Kyoto produced a jeep not quite 10 centimeters long that sold for 10 yen. The stock of one hundred thousand quickly disappeared from store shelves, heralding the modest revival of the toy industry. The quintessentially American nature of the product was appropriate, for the child’s world was defined, in generally positive and uncritical ways, by an acceptance of the fact of being occupied. Jeeps were associated with the chocolate and chewing gum handed out by cheerful GIs, and thus with the few delicious amenities imaginable in these war-torn lives. “Hello,” “goodbye,” “jeep,” and “give me chocolate” were the first English words most youngsters learned. They also learned to fold newspapers into soft GI-style hats rather than the traditional samurai helmets of the past. To older, nationalistic Japanese, a good part of child’s play seemed to involve finding pleasure in being colonized.

The games *were* happy–that was the point of playing, after all–but in ways that almost invariably tended to sadden grownups, for they highlighted so clearly and innocently the pathos that war and defeat had brought into their lives. Early in 1946, for example, it was reported that the three most popular activities among small boys and girls were yamiichi-gokko, panpan asobi, and demo asobi–that is, holding a mock black market, playing prostitute and customer, and recreating left-wing political demonstrations.

Black-market games–hawkers and their wares–might be seen in retrospect as a kind of school for small entrepreneurs, but to grownups at the time they were simply another grim reminder of the necessity of engaging in illegal activity to make ends meet. Panpan asobi, prostitution play, was even harder for parents to behold, for panpan was a postwar euphemism for freelance prostitutes who catered almost exclusively to the GI trade. A photograph from early 1946 shows laughing youngsters in shabby clothes reenacting this–a boy wearing a soft GI hat, his arm hooked into that of a little girl wearing patched pants. In the demo game, children ran around waving red paper flags. As youngsters grew older, play shaded into practice. The press took care to note when roundups of prostitutes included girls as young as fourteen, while schoolboys as well as orphans and runaways quickly learned how to earn pocket money as pimps by leading GIs to women. “You like to meet my sister?” became, for some, the next level of English after “give me chocolate.”

As time passed, the playtime repertoire expanded. In mid-1947, a teacher in Osaka reported that his pupils seemed absorbed in playing “train” games, using the teacher’s platform at the front of the classroom as the center of their activities. In “repatriate train,” children put on their school knapsacks, jammed together on the dais, shook and trembled, and got off at “Osaka.” “Special train”–obviously a takeoff on the railway cars reserved for occupation personnel–allowed only “pretty people” to get on. A “conductor” judged who was favored and who wasn’t. A button missing? Rejected. Dirty face? Rejected. Those who passed these arbitrary hurdles sat in leisure on the train. Those rejected stood by enviously. In “ordinary train,” everyone piled on, pushing and shoving, complaining about being stepped on, crying out for help. Every so often, the conductors balancing on the edges of the platform announced that the train had broken down and everyone had to get off. It was, the teacher lamented, a sorry spectacle to behold: from playing war to playing at utter confusion.

Well into 1949, children continued to turn social disorders into games. In runpen-gokkothey pretended to be homeless vagrants. The game took its name from teh German word lumpen, which had come to Japan earier as “lumpenproleteriat” and then acquired the everyday meaning of being an unemployed vagrant. The atmosphere of lawlessness was reenacted in “to catch a thief” (dorobo-gokko) and “pretending handcuffs” (tejou-gokko). “Catch a thief,” it was said, had replaced hide-and-seek in popularity. Desire to strike it rich was captured in a lottery game. Predictably, child’s play also included kaidashi-gokko, pretending to leave home to search for food [49].


COMMENT: This marvellously-written and researched account by Dr Dower, in parts guffaw-inducing, in others depressing, is something rarely considered in historical accounts: The barometer of social suffering as absorbed and reflected in its children doing what kids do: trying to have fun.

The photo accompanying the text (and referred to within), concerning panpan asobi is priceless:
(Click on image to see whole photo)

I especially love the expressions on the girls’ faces. And I can see why people in most societies shield their children’s eyes from what happens next when the couple repairs elsewhere.

On a more serious note, this play wouldn’t be quite so beneficial to society if it wasn’t seen as fun by the children. More like trauma. And given that Tokyo Guv Ishihara Shintaro was about to turn 15 by the time the war ended, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he couldn’t see the brighter side of the Occupation, and became the very stripey character (particularly regarding non-Japanese) that he is.

Arudou Debito in Yoyogi-Uehara, Tokyo

1 comment on “Fun Facts #4: Indicative Postwar “Child’s Play”

  • From the psycological point of view, it is possible to trace the animosity of many elderly towards the american occupation of Japan and by extension the actual presence of foreigners on japanese soil, to the early age of child play, the frustrations of being rejected on the “Special Train” over the poor dressing, or the chocolate that was denied by the G.I. One can only wonder about the circumnstances that marked the lifes of these people.


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