The Lessons of Okinawa
by Lysa Parker, Attachment Parenting International
In 1946 an educational film called "The Okinawan", became the subject of nationwide interest and was shown to many pediatricians and to many other professional groups, and at many colleges and universities. This film was made during World War II, by Commander James C. Maloney and Commander J.J. Cammisa, two United States medical officers stationed in Okinawa during the struggle with Japan.
This movie was filmed in Okinawa Shima during World War II when Dr. Maloney and his commanding officer, J.J. Cammisa, became intrigued with the amazing psychological stamina of the Okinawan people. "There are few psychotic persons among the civilians in Okinawan Shima" noted Dr. Maloney.
"Prior to the war, there was not a single asylum or psychiatrist for the entire island, which had a population of nearly 400,000 persons. In the western world, over fifty percent of all hospital beds were allocated to those suffering from mental disease. The relatively few psychotic persons encountered in Okinawa Shima pose a problem for speculation. The fact that these people remained emotionally stable after having suffered heavy bombings, losing their homes and their crops, and having entire families annihilated, was astonishing."
Dr. Maloney's explanation of the phenomenon became the center of his work on the film.
". . . and I believe that I can supply one of the explanations. First of all, I do not believe that these people are constitutionally sounder than Americans...Rather, in my opinion, this psychological stamina stems from the excellent start the Okinawan child gets in life. He is well-mothered."
During the showing of the film, Dr. Maloney spoke often of what he termed the permissive method of child guidance practiced by the Okinawan people. Maloney concluded that this permissive method employed by the Okinawan mother is a basic factor in establishing a foundation of emotional stability. The Okinawan baby is offered the breast whenever hungry and often when frightened. The latter is important, because nursing during a fear state comforts a baby, allays his anxieties, affords him a sense of security and gives him confidence in the protective power of his mother. This is conducive to healthy psychological maturation. During these early days of life, fear states, if allowed to persist, can warp emotional development. Allowed to continue in a state of fear, the child develops an aggravated apprehension of the outer world, and he loses his sense of security and his confidence in the protective powers of his mother. Consequently, he develops neurotic techniques of mastery.
When a child is born in Okinawa, that baby becomes the preoccupation of the mother. "The infant is permitted the breast from the hour of birth, not only for feeding but to allay fear until he is 2 years old. The mother does "everything within her power" to prevent "early frustrations." This stems from the belief that frustration during the nursing period may create a host of gastrointestinal problems from peptic ulcers or irritable colon to diarrhea and constipation. The mother seldom leaves her baby.
When the child reaches age 2, it is customary for the child to be cared for by the elder sister. If there is no elder sister, then the older brother is given the responsibility. At age 5, the child is deemed psychologically mature and prepared for school. There is little, if any, resistance to starting school. The child goes to school with the older sister or brother in whose care they have been given. Dr. Maloney stated that he had seen little corporal punishment in this culture. If the child breaks a valuable object, the mother scolds herself for lack of wisdom in leaving the object accessible to one so young.
In 1946, these enlightened doctors discovered the value of what we now call attachment parenting - meeting the dependency needs of children in a responsive, gentle way. During that same era, attachment research was beginning to surface by John Bowlby and his colleagues. Maloney and Cammisa realized that they had stumbled onto a keystone of human civilization. The lesson of Okinawa is the lesson of consent, the lesson that indicates that if a child is well-mothered and well-guided by both parents, then the child given the best of all possible starts in life and seems well on his way to emotional stability. "If my observations on Okinawa are valid," says Dr. Maloney, "a continuing world peace could eventually be achieved."
Dillaway, Newton. The Lesson of Okinawa. Wakefield, MA:Montrose Press, 1947. Available from The New York Public Library, Call Number JLC 78-304
Psychiatry. Vol. 8, No. 4, November 1945
Psychiatry Quarterly, October 1946.