There are many differences which you could easily point out between Japan and Australia (and many other places). They range from the widespread use of cartoon figures in advertising, the amazing quality of food from convenience stores, the type of music at train stations, the size of cars. But today I’m thinking about how people inhabit public space, or more specifically: children.
This musing was brought about my realisation that whenever I’m in Japan, I see many many more small children in public spaces, particularly those younger than school age, than I do in Melbourne. Of course, when I’m here, I’m travelling. Essentially that means I am often in public or at least commercial public spaces. In your normal life, working evidently takes up your time but also more strongly delimits the type of space you spend time in – your work space, your home space. Evidently, I wouldn’t expect to see many young children gambolling about university grounds. Yet when I’m out in Melbourne, during the day, in public, I see far fewer children. In Kyoto recently, I saw four young women cycling in a line, each with at least one child, often two, seated like dolls in the front and back of their bicycles. I see babies and toddlers flopping out of fabric harnesses tied to their mothers’ and grandparents’ bodies; children running around train stations and slurping noodles with difficulty in udon shops.
I started wondering about why children (accompanied by carers) were taking up public or semi-public spaces in this way. One of my friends joked that the bicycle train was the Japanese equivalent of the station wagon, that sturdy vehicle with plentiful space and a hard exterior. Compared to that, the young mothers on bicycles seemed so out there, vulnerable, in the open. But it made me ask how holistic it is that we rarely see young children incidentally in public in Australia?
Evidently, my view is shaped by living in a large urban centre like Melbourne. But even in regional and more rural areas, does Australia have much public space, for children? This is an open question. The privatised space of the room of the car, the spacious playroom and yard for the kids at home is quite at odds with how space is made available in Japan. Apartments and houses are usually tiny by Australian standards; cars are often smaller; and in comparison to Australia, the public transport is fast, extremely frequent and accessible.
The association of children and public space, you might say, evokes a sense of danger or nuisance. Children should be kept free from harm, from danger. Indeed, a similar argument is often made in relation to women. This link is not very surprising, given how women are often infantilised in relation to men. Yet, given, as I see here, that women are so often primary carers of these small children, the way in which women are able to move in public has an impact on children’s movement too – and public spaces should be widely accessible to everyone.
I watched a show recently on the different forms of okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake. The owner of one shop spoke nostalgically of a time when he would see three generations all together, eating. When there is such a strict divide between private familial space and public space, how often would we see this happen?