Three semi-related ideas have congealed in my head this week:
Kids need diverse groups of friends.
"Family" is a vague, lazy word.
I finished up a research paper last week about the lexical usage of singular they. (It's a fascinating topic and there are a lot of good essays out there. Read this one and this one to start.) One of the things my research brought home was the importance of representation, i.e. the idea that it is vitally important that all kinds of people (meaning different races, religions, backgrounds, etc.) see themselves represented in the media produced by any given culture.
Western countries have begun addressing this. In the past thirty years, we've gone from the "token non-white" to diverse casts that meet a more realistic view of what the U.S. population looks like. Japan has not done as well. In part, this is because the population just is not as diverse as the U.S. or Canada or Australia, but partly its because challenging stereotypes is hard and runs the risk of upsetting people.
And the reason this matters to me is that I have a biracial daughter being raised in Japan and there is almost no one on t.v. who looks like she does. To be fair, it is changing, but I worry about the future and whether she will ever see herself represented in the Japanese media.
Cliques have been a part of school life since the first classroom opened its doors. That said, Japan has one of the biggest cliques of all: being Japanese. In my last few years of teaching at junior high schools here, one problem I saw, repeatedly, was kids being excluded for being not-Japanese enough while simultaneously being told that they needed to be more Japanese. It's a problem.
The solution, of course, is to make sure your kids have lots of different friend groups - the ones at school, the ones in their after-school activity, the ones they're only friends with because you're friends with their parents...
I've got a pretty diverse set of friends and my kid gets on well with their kids. Aside from this being good for me and my social life, this is good because my friends' kids are almost all biracial as well. My daughter can meet up with these other kids and be reminded that she's not the only one who's different from the pack at school.
Which brings me to my point, family has become a malleable word. In the U.S., the past few decades have seen the number of divorces skyrocket, which, in turn, has brought the number of mixed or blended families up as well. At this point, even if your own family is still the nuclear family of the 50s*, you probably know several people with step-siblings or half-siblings or adopted siblings and all the other relatives that that involves. I don't know that it's accepted so much as tolerated, but it's a facet of daily life in America these days. So much so that the idea of family being something you build as opposed to something you're born into has become, I'd argue, a central tenet of American values. (Source: every single Fast and Furious movie.)
But not in Japan. In Japan, single mothers routinely hide their status from school PTA groups and workplaces. Single fathers (or even just fathers taking care of their kids for the day) are so rare as to be non-existent. And blended families are just about unheard of, to say nothing of "family."
The phrase "blood is thicker" gets thrown around ex-pat communities as a mocking, sarcastic example of the "wrong" way of thinking - that families are comprised only of those people whose names are recorded on the family registrar** maintained by the government. Instead, and especially, as ex-pats have "real" families with spouses and children, the need to create extended families of people who look and act and have the same trials as your own becomes stronger than ever.
So, what is a de facto, real-life family buts up hard against what the rules say a family can be. And that's going to be a problem that I don't think Japan is even aware of, much less prepared for...
*Mom, Dad, two point five kids, a dog, a cat, and maybe a robot butler.
**The great irony here is that Japanese history is full of examples of a ranking samurai needing an heir and secretly adopting a child to raise as their own.
Collins Cobuild Idioms Dictionary:
…someone’s loyalty to their family is greater than their loyalty to anyone else.
The origins of the proverb are unclear, namely because it is so old.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says it was first recorded in 1412, although it does not say where.
The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, however, says it is recorded in German in the 12th century. (Wikipedia clarifies that this is in Reynard the Fox by Heinrich der Glîchezære.)
The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:
It is interesting to note that blood has a specific gravity of 1.06 - only slightly thicker than water, which has a specific gravity of 1.00!
Notable Events of the Year 1412:
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Family is what you make it. Here are my favorite pop-culture families:
Next Time: Blood, sweat, and tears. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.