Too innocent for prejudice?

Are kindergarteners racist? Do they discriminate between children with different skin colors?

“Children are too innocent,” one Japanese mother told me in a survey of parents’ views. Her conclusion: “They do not hold racial prejudices.”

As innocent as children may be, extensive research conducted in the United States and Europe has shown that children as young as three have the capacity to discriminate against others based on race. However, little research on this topic has been conducted in Japan, a more culturally homogeneous society than most in the West.

The issue of prejudice among children is particularly relevant for Japan, a country projected to have the world’s oldest population by 2025. With this demographic reality looming, there are concerns the Japanese economy will be unable to sustain itself without the help of millions more immigrant workers. Some economists believe it will be necessary to allow 610,000 immigrants into the workforce per year for the next 50 years to counter the effects of the declining birthrate. With unprecedented diversity in Japan looking increasingly inevitable, issues of racial prejudice are bound to bubble to the surface more often — even among young children.

All this begs the question: to what degree are Japanese children racially biased? Are there differences in the attitudes of Japanese children attending international schools and those that study in less diverse environments? If a kindergarten-age child is prejudiced, how did this come to be? Understanding the answers could suggest ways of reducing bias and preparing Japan to meet the challenges of demographic change.

I worked with over 60 children, and amidst long stretches of answers that extended no further than “yes” or “no,” there were occasional moments when students opened up and elaborated expressively on their answers.

“This boy has dark skin. I’m scared of that,” said one child.

“I want to play with everybody because everyone is my friend,” said another.

While these individual comments were enlightening in themselves, the overall results were much more intriguing. Children from different types of schools did have different attitudes.

In the U.S., people of all different races identify themselves as American and not an eyebrow is raised. But in Japan, people who look or speak differently are often labeled a “gaijin,” an outsider. No matter how “Japanese” a person might feel, this label acts to set them apart from the Japanese people at large. This is harmful and unfair.