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  • Children as a Different CultureChapter 1, Part II, “On Fragmentation: Parts Not Disconnected”
  • Honda Masuko
    Translated by Deborah Shamoon (bio)

Translator’s Commentary

Ibunka to shite no kodomo (Children as a different culture) by Honda Masuko was first published in 1982.1 Despite Honda’s importance in Japanese critical theory, her work is relatively unknown outside Japan. To date, her essay “The Genealogy of Hirahira: The Liminality of the Girl” is her only work translated into English, other than what is presented here.2 That essay, which is also a chapter in Children as a Different Culture, was one of the first scholarly works to draw a connection between prewar girls’ culture (shōjo bunka) and postwar girls’ comics (shōjo manga). In addition to her groundbreaking work on shōjo (teenage girls), Honda is foremost a scholar of childhood studies. Children as a Different Culture is a key text in Japanese language scholarship on children and childhood.

Born in 1931, Honda attended Ochanomizu University in Tokyo and later joined the faculty as a professor. She served as the first female president of Ochanomizu from 2001 to 2005. She is the author of many books on childhood from the Edo period to the present, and on children’s literature and girlhood in general, but Children as a Different Culture, her second book, is still the most widely cited.

Honda begins the book with a haiku by Kobayashi Issa, written in 1814:

yuki toketemura ippai nokodomo kana

Melting snowand the village overflowingwith children!3 [End Page 9]

Within this seemingly tranquil scene, in which the excited cries of children playing outside are the first sign of spring, Honda sees something uncanny and disturbing. The image of children overflowing, that is, of moving in ways that are uncontained and unconstrained, challenges the order that adults seek to impose on the world. Honda returns frequently to the image of children wriggling like insects or rodents, a scene of abundant, uncontrolled movement that makes us uneasy. The fact that the haiku only hints at this is typical of the gap between children and adults, she writes. Honda describes the movements of children as vague, whimsical, rambling, hard to categorize. What is interesting and important to them is hard for adults to understand, she writes, but even if we ignore it with our heads, we somehow feel it deep inside.

In her introduction to Children as a Different Culture, Honda argues for taking a closer look at the seemingly inconsequential actions and behaviors of children. In particular, she finds meaning in the movement of children’s bodies in all their ambiguity and directionless energy. The wriggling of children is “provocative,” a term Honda returns to frequently. Adults find children’s actions provocative not only because they are uncontrolled and seemingly meaningless but because they contain the potential for violence. Children, Honda writes, “exist outside culture” or rather they represent “the foreign culture within.”4

In contrast to the peaceful haiku scene, Honda mentions several incidents in which children committed acts of violence or even murder. She states that in our attempts to understand why this violence occurred we often turn our attention to the adults around them, their circumstances, or how they understand their actions. But in so doing, Honda says, we become trapped in an adult perspective that prevents us from seeing children clearly, or even being able to talk about the more disturbing or provocative potential of children.

Honda’s work is informed by Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Ariès.5 The concept of child or childhood arises with the modern family, according to Ariès; before that they were thought of as little adults. The discovery of childhood begins with Romantic poets and Rousseau, and, from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, children were considered blank slates. At that time, people began to think of children as a metaphor, as representing the spirit of a generation. In the twentieth century, thanks to Freud, the image of childhood changed again to a scientific model.

Since then, the idea of the child as a blank slate has disappeared, but while we no longer use children as a...


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pp. 9-24
Launched on MUSE
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