Methods

Students’ Guide to “Reading” Primary Sources on the History of Children & Youth

Miriam Forman-Brunell
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Puppeteers Painting image thumbnail

Overview

How do you study the history of young people? What can primary source documents reveal? What limitations do they pose? What light can the history of young people shed on the past? This essay aims to serve as a guide to finding, interpreting or “reading” primary sources on young people from ancient civilizations to the present.

Essay

Children spring into view in this 18th-century Japanese ink painting by Hanabusa Itchô. In the painting’s details are seemingly happy children energetically running to see a traveling entertainer’s puppet show. One might assume from this painting, as did Harvard Zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse, that Japan was a children’s "paradise" where babies benefited from riding on the backs of older children instead of crying in their cribs. Yet probing beneath the surface of this source complicates this rosy picture of the past.

A consideration of the age, gender, and class of the children reveal that the half-hidden figures in the window were upper-class girls prevented from playing on the streets. Although the painting portrays the children below as joyful, these komori (babysitters) who provided childcare in exchange for room and board often felt deep despair. While Confucian treatises on education, health, and wet-nursing are sources that reveal nothing about those from the lowest rung of society, other evidence—such as the songs sung by the komori—document more distress than delight.

Knowing how to reexamine established assumptions, consider multiple perspectives, and make connections between inquiry and interpretation is essential to researching the history of children and youth. Critical to that endeavor is the skillful utilization of primary sources (original records created during a period under study or produced by a participant later on) that have survived from the past).

How do you study the history of young people? What can primary source documents reveal? What limitations do they pose? What light can the history of young people shed on the past? This essay aims to serve as a guide to finding, interpreting or “reading” primary sources on young people from ancient civilizations to the present.

Primary Sources

thumbnail of the song lyrics
Annotation:

During the modern Imperial period (1868-1945), daughters of poor Japanese families worked as komori taking care of their own siblings or working as indentured servants for other poor families. The state's efforts to foster Japanese citizenship and feminize the komori led to programs aimed at making them more maternal.

The first song is one that was sung by a teacher who taught komori girls in the town of Matsumoto around the turn of the century. This song was part of the broader educational curriculum designed to replace the songs of the komori that were deemed "coarse" and "vulgar" by teachers and other adults who represented the interests of the modern state.

The second counting song, typical of others by the komori, described exploitative working conditions and grave injustices. Based on peasant songs, those songs sung by the komori (of which there are many versions) enabled workers to express resistance to those who exploited them as well as those who sought to feminize them. Some songs mocked their mistresses and masters; other focused on the foods they were not allowed to eat as well as the inadequacies of their rations. The lyrics of others expressed hostility toward their charges: "What can we do with a naughty child?/Let's put him on the drum/and hit him with green bamboo sticks." The third song included here is representative of those that expressed the emotional pain of the komori and their need for their mothers. Not only did the komori sing about love but also lust, their bodies, sexual desire, and intercourse.

These songs and others that describe their daily lives (working, playing, trysting, venting) are useful sources of information that shed light on the everyday experiences of the komori and the lyrical cultural practices that expressed their alienation and resistance. In what ways are the komori similar to and different from babysitters in other cultures and at different times?

How to Cite This Source
Miriam Forman-Brunell Students’ Guide to “Reading” Primary Sources on the History of Children & Youth in World History Commons,