Kid Culture (Summer Camp, Week 4)

In Akasaka 7-chome.

This morning in Tokyo, the rain is torrential, and I am delighted. Summer Camp has been a rewarding experience, but summer, as a concept, I am more or less done with right now. Consequently, I am thinking of moving to Narnia.

I fact, I’m thinking of rewriting the Chronicles of Narnia, which showed a hideous bias against the White Witch. Old-fashioned reactionary misogyny against strong female leaders, that’s what it is. In my version, she’ll be a capable technocrat who spent one too many sweaty summers in Niigata, and is just trying to do what’s best for her people with some of that sweet, sweet endless winter*. I mean, giving turkish delight to children is unquestionably a dick move, but we all have our faults. Ehh. I’m sure I’ll like summer again next June.

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One of my colleagues at camp is an anthropologist by training, and spent a happy year in Tanzania as a student. We chatted happily for a bit about Tanzania, which I also visited during my uni years (just for three weeks, though). Meanwhile, I hatched the idea of writing an observational piece on the behaviour and culture of kids at camp. I’m hardly an anthropologist, but here’s the fruits of my labour anyway.

Talking Gender

At camp, kids are organised into teams and superteams. Each team is made up of either boys or girls, led by a team leader of the same gender. The team is joined with another team of the opposite gender to make a superteam. Superteams do all their activities together, and in theory they’re meant to be one unit, but children have a way of undoing the best-laid plans. Apart from my unusually gregarious week three team, the boys don’t usually socialise much with the girls, and they almost never form activity groups with them unless wrangled into it by adult cunning. It’s too reductionist to say that boys playfight while girls gossip, but it’s a reasonable starting point. I had to deal with a dozen wrestling matches that got out of hand, but none of my campers ever asked me if I fancied any of the other camp leaders.

boys tean.jpg

Gender presentation in third and fourth grade Japanese children is pretty rigid. Girls tend towards wearing pink, red, black and white, and come to camp with bucket hats or similar. Boys get a riot of colour and baseball caps. Boys do usually have short hair, but there is some flexibility on this- personally,  I’ve found that the long-haired boys on my teams tended to be among the more sensitive souls, but no doubt I’m dragging some of my own preconceptions and biases into this. As far as I can remember, all but one of the girls on my superteams has had long hair. The one exception also had a wicked fashion sense and a very definite artistic flair in arts and crafts.

different colours.jpg

And speaking of arts and crafts: it will come as no surprise that activities get their own share of gendering. Girls were far more likely to be panicky swimmers, although there’s no reason to think that they would be weaker swimmers than boys of the same age. Boys were far more likely to say they were excited about playing soccer and field games (although one girl on my superteam this time loved soccer), and girls were much more likely to be tanoshimiiiii for the dance party and arts and crafts. The funny thing is that when you’re actually at the dance party, you see boys everywhere going wild and throwing some shapes. Likewise, nearly everyone is intently engaged at arts and crafts. It seems like the difference is less in how much boys enjoy these activities, than in how much they can be seen to enjoy them by their peers. The boys were often pretty bashful to admit they enjoyed painting and drawing after the event. All of this might strike you as a bit obvious, but it’s interesting to watch it play out with different cohorts of boys and girls over the summer.


At times, I found the self-imposed separation of kids at camp a bit frustrating, but you’re not there to reshape society. Three activities above all seemed to stand above those divisions- kayaking, which nearly everybody loved even in the rapidly shrinking lake, and the waterslide and campfire, which I’ve talked about before. Camp is a great place for encouraging girls to get into sports, get their clothes muddy and search for bugs- I sometimes wish it was a better place at convincing boys to be creative and talk about their feelings, but you can’t have everything.

Doraemon and Daifugo

Doraemon 1One of the most striking things about children’s cultural consumption in Japan is how internationalized it has become. Sure, there are exceptions, like the long-running Doraemon, a cartoon about a near-omnipotent robot cat from the 22nd Century who travels back in time with a four-dimensional pouch of futuristic dream gadgets to help a boy called Nobita. Sometimes it feels like every kid in Japan can draw Doraemon- there’s a song, of course**. Studio Ghibli’s stunning movies are popular, too, and I saw a fair few manga books scattered around the rooms.

How I felt this week- a screenshot from Doraemon.

But Disney was everwhere at camp: Mickey Mouse water bottles, Lion King t-shirts, Aladdin singalongs. Most elementary school kids had watched a bunch of Disney films and could tell you their favourite. Despicable Me was another cultural powerhouse: I  saw an endless parade of minion socks, bags and water bottles. Star Wars was represented in camp clothes and towels. Other kid culture touchstones spread out from Japan to colonise the rest of the world- Japanese children still love Pokemon, and lots of them got chatting with me about their favourite legendary bird when they saw my Moltres/Team Flare t-shirt. I actually prefer Zapdos, but I don’t suit yellow. These are the kinds of difficult choices that adulthood forces on you, eh?

Card games are an ever-present part of camp culture. They vary from international games like Uno and Trump, to homegrown offerings like daifugo and spin-offs like babanuki. They were the most obvious test of kids’ confidence and assertiveness in social situations: the kids who struggled with the competitiveness and disputes of the card game circle also tended to be the shyer ones during activities. The kids who got shut out of the card game circle, whether by self-exile or due to arguments with other kids, also struggled to make friends at camp. Japanese schools have a real problem with nakama hazure (bullying by social exclusion), and I’ve tried my best to intervene and make sure everyone gets to play. But children’s social worlds are a law unto themselves, and I’ve only been sporadically successful.


Sticking Together

Peer pressure can be a powerful force, and not just in the 1980s Nancy-Reagan-Just-Say-No kind of way. As a child, it’s usually so important to be part of the group that everyone can be extraordinarily suggestible. On one team, a couple of the kids like the camp songs on the first day, and so by the end of camp, everyone is walking around giggling and inventing their own versions. On another, nobody really gets into the songs the first time, and so for the rest of the week they’re met with stony silence. On one day, the granola bars are going like hot cakes; the next time, the first kid decides they don’t want theirs and so nobody wants them. If you’re a devious team leader, you can try and use this social conformity to your advantage, but it can also backfire on you- if one kid decides it’s okay to be rude to you and you don’t act fast enough, that can spread too.


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Next week is my last week of summer camp, and I’m planning to post some kind of coda to say what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed this summer. Then I’m off on the road for real this time, to explore more of Japan’s mountains, beaches and drinking holes, and hopefully hop across the Tsushima Straits to South Korea. I’ll be writing a travelogue as I go- I look forward to sharing it with you.

I’ll leave you with this maddeningly catchy kids’ song written for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic preparations, because I must have heard it a hundred times and it’s etched into my brain forever, and if I have to suffer, you can too. Peace and love all.

*  Jadis/Edmund 2020: Making Narnia Great Again










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