Kids Visit Japan's Not-So-Wilds

KENTA TAKESHITA, a fourth-grader whose life experience is the urban sprawl of Tokyo, had never touched a beetle until this summer. He finally got a chance on a trip to a forest - a simulated forest on the eighth floor of a downtown department store. Some 60,000 beetles were rounded up for ``Amusing Country Land'' at the high-priced Takashimaya Co. near the Ginza shopping strip. The attractions included simulated Japanese rice paddies; a pond with catfish, frogs, and turtles; a house with a thatched roof; and a (real) farmer's wife.

``I'm sure this would be a rare event in any other country,'' says Masayuki Kawasaki, advertising manager for Takashimaya. Even in New York City, abundant nature is a 30-minute train ride away. But in Japan, ``It's getting harder to find a country scene,'' he says. The countryside here is an hour away at least.

Last month's two-week event, first introduced last summer, has made many urban parents reconsider their unwillingness to take their children on trips.

``I cannot easily find time to take them,'' says Kenta's mother, Ryoko. ``In the natural environment, I don't think we could as easily find the insects as we do here.''

Many of Kenta's friends at school hardly ever see beetles, so they are eager to buy them, she says. But her child had a moment of pastoral ecstasy at being allowed to catch the insect in the store's net-covered room, complete with piped-in bug sounds. (Children were free to chase insects at the exhibit, but if they wanted to take them home, they had to pay a couple dollars.)

``I felt afraid at first,'' said Kenta, still looking around for some more beetles. ``They're slippery, aren't they?''

This convenient but artificial experience of nature will hardly give young Japanese urban-dwellers a correct view of ecology, say some environmentalists. ``The problem is that some people already lack any normal sense about nature,'' says Fubomichi Kudoh, conservation director of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. ``They don't think that such an event is strange.''

Another reason that modern city kids miss out on chasing butterflies or swimming in the ocean is that they are too busy. Japan's pressure-cooker education system leaves little time for just plain fun. More than 45 percent of elementary school pupils from the third to the sixth grade now attend afternoon or evening cram schools, known as juku, to help them pass entrance exams to top-notch high schools or universities, according to a January survey by Fukutake Publishing Company.

Two-thirds of the students also take other extracurricular activities such as ballet and piano, according to the report. Even on vacation, ``I do homework everyday and sometimes go to a swimming school,'' Kenta says.

THE department store's Mr. Kawasaki worries that parents may be expecting too much of their children. ``Something important has been missing,'' he says. Even the staid Nihon Keizai newspaper, Japan's equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, stated in a column in July that ``we witness fewer scenes in which children make a lot of noise outside. This is summer vacation, but where did those children go?'' Many children attend outdoor summer camps. But in general, says Mr. Kudoh of the Nature Conservation Society, something strange ``is happening all over Japan.''

The mayor of a seaside village in Hokkaido commented to Kudoh recently that many children have never swum in the ocean; they go to a swimming pool instead. Adults may make it easier for children to fish by damming up part of a river and stocking it.

``When people try to get more convenience from nature, they definitely lose something,'' says Kudoh, ``but they don't realize it.''

Japan is losing its natural settings to a development boom in resorts and golf course, thanks to a tax break enacted in 1987. Since 1973, Japan has lost about four percent of its forests.

``While we spend time debating whether to increase our natural environment,'' says child-expert Masashi Fukaya, ``our children are growing up.''

``I hope this society won't need such an event in five years,'' says the department store's Kawasaki. ``After all, this is a fake countryside.''

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