THis article first appeared in www.todayonline.com on 15 April 2017.

The Japanese parents at the next table were poker-faced, but I know they saw me feeding my six-year-old. And somehow, I felt as though they were judging me.

We were on a lunch break in a diner in a Japanese ski town during the recent March school holidays. While I alternately cajoled and threatened my six-year-old to eat another mouthful of rice, the two-year-old angel in her Daddy’s lap next door was placidly feeding herself.

If she was not so adorable, I would hate her.

It was not hard to tell us apart from the locals. My three monkeys were bickering with one another, then dropping their jackets, then removing their shoes. The Japanese children, however, remained calmly rooted to their seats — no drama, no fuss.

Some may say “no fun”, but seriously, would I give up some fun for a peaceful meal?

Is sushi made of rice?

In the five days that we spent in Tokyo, I do not recall witnessing a meltdown from any child in a public place. In fact, all I saw were picture-perfect Japanese toddlers just begging to be praised.

So, I wanted to know: Why are Japanese kids so well behaved, at least in public? As always, one starts with the parents. Specifically, the Japanese style of parenting.


In Japanese culture, a “gracious society” is not a campaign tagline. Graciousness, according to the Japanese, is essential to being human.

Just look at this widely used definition of discipline (shitsuke) from a Japanese folklore dictionary: “Putting into the body of a child, the art of living and good manners, in order to create one grown-up person”.

So, one is not complete in one’s development until good manners are in place.

It is no wonder that Japanese parents and pre-schools work hard at nurturing toddlers, who will become gracious members of society. And integral to graciousness is a respect for public spaces.

“The early introduction of ‘manners’ (includes) teaching children respect for public spaces. This plays a major role in how Japanese kids behave,” said my friend’s Japanese wife.

Keiko cited an example of how Japanese parents would remove their child’s shoes if they stood on the seats in subway trains. This is done out of consideration for the next user, she said.

In kindergartens, etiquette is an object of overriding concern in the training of young children. Says Keiko: “Teachings, both in school and at home, are consistent, and are constantly instilled in the child.”

This reminds me of my experience with a Japanese teacher. When my son was 10 months old, we joined one of those Japanese right-brain training programmes. Those were the days when the instructors came from Japan.

Whenever a baby fussed, she would advise the caregiver to step aside with the child and try to calm him or her down. If that did not work, she would tell the person to exit the classroom and return only when the child was ready. This was so as to not disrupt the rest of the class.

That may seem like common sense, but to a first-time mum like me back then, it was quite an education. Clearly, there are times when parents need to be “socialised” along with the child.


Being in Japan, however briefly, has underscored the old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child”. There has to be an acceptance of certain values at the societal level, if we wish for our kids to become gracious adults.

Overheard in the train on my recent trip: “We Japanese do not like people talking on the phone in the subway. It is impolite to others.”

An American woman had asked a Japanese commuter why there were signs exhorting people not to talk on their mobile phones. And haven’t we all encountered that nasty handphone user in a crowded train? Or in a lift, for that matter.

According to Demographia World Urban Areas, which provides annual estimates of urban population density, Singapore ranked 198th, while Tokyo came in at 654th in 2016. Yes, it seems we have the dubious honor of beating Tokyo in population density. Thus, ensuring graciousness and thoughtfulness in public spaces is not just good to have. It is essential to our collective sanity.

From January, students in Singapore — from primary schools all the way to junior colleges — have to spend some time cleaning their classrooms and public spaces. Should the little ones in preschool join the “movement” too? How about bringing back Singa, the courtesy lion, just for them?

And what of families that have domestic help? How can we reinforce the same values at home, when Aunty is always ready to clean up the mess for the child?

I am still searching for answers within my own household.

Meanwhile, in the diner far away from home, my six-year-old monkey had been on the floor rummaging around her feet. She found what she was looking for — a piece of fried chicken in her shoe.

She threw her head back and laughed uproariously — much to the chagrin of our Japanese neighbours, no doubt.

  1. Very insightful article! I love your site 🙂 This reminded me of the amazement I felt when I watched the news on the 2011 tsunami incident in Japan; the unity and graciousness that was demonstrated by the Japanese as they put society and others before themselves is a clear indication of how proper upbringing and manners maketh a man 🙂

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