The Japanese TV show “Old Enough!” on Netflix, which showcases toddlers running errands by themselves, has captivated audiences in the United States. The original Japanese version is called “Hajimete no otsukai,” which translates to “My first errand.”
The hit TV show has left many people comparing parenting styles and children’s safety between Japan and the US. But there is more that goes on behind the scenes that allows children to get around independently.
To an American audience, toddlers crossing the road to go to the supermarket unsupervised or helping with household chores would be considered alarming or negligent. But in Japan, children as young as 6 can be seen taking the train or walking to school. And it’s not viewed as something unusual. In fact, a local survey of 400 mothers conducted in 2019 showed that 64% of elementary students in Japan go to school by themselves.
In the suburbs of Tokyo, second-grade students make their way to school between 8:15 and 8:25 in the morning. The steady flow of children resembles a caravan or a “walking school bus.” Most noticeably, there isn’t an adult in sight.
The vice principal, Hiroyuki Hata, said that in Japan, it’s very rare for parents to accompany their children to school.
“Traditionally, parents don’t come to pick up or drop off their kids,” he said. “It’s always been this way, even when I was a young boy at school.”
He looked at a color-coded map. There are four routes students take to walk to school, which are carefully planned and monitored by parents and volunteers.
“This red-colored course is our main route, so students close to this one must follow this route to come and go home from school, which makes it easy to look for them if something were to happen.”
Second-grade teacher Naoko Tanaka said the children are never really walking alone. They walk to school in coordinated groups. She added that it's safety in numbers.
“To make sure students are safe from cars, normally we hold special classes and the sixth-grade students are also expected to take care of the younger students.”
“To make sure students are safe from cars, normally, we hold special classes and the sixth-grade students are also expected to take care of the younger students,” she said. “We also rely on the community to look out for the kids.”
Local police officers also visit the school to teach students how to cross the road, and students then practice at mock crosswalks.
The children study a variety of situations, including how to cross the street in the rain, how to get home when an earthquake hits, what to do if you encounter someone suspicious on the way home and how to ride an elevator safely.
“For instance, on rainy days, we tell kids about the dangers of trucks and how umbrellas make it hard for them to be seen. So, we tell them not to bring their umbrellas with them.”
They’ll wear some type of raincoat instead. And one student explained that she just closes her umbrella when she’s at traffic crossings.
At morning homeroom, second-year students talk about the road safety rules they’ve learned.
“We always look left and right and cross at the white crossing.”
“We always look left and right and cross at the white crossing,” 7-year-old Juno Nakata said.
Ember Campion, also 7, said that she’s always prepared in case she encounters someone suspicious.
“On my backpack, I have an alarm that goes ‘beep beep beep.’ I always have it and if I see a scary person I’ll use it,” she said. “When I need help, it will go ‘beep beep beep’ and I will run to a house nearby and ask them to call the police.”
Kazuya Takahashi is a Tokyo-based educator and a junior high school teacher who won the annual Global Teacher Prize in 2016. He said that, in Japan, where earthquakes are commonplace, self-reliance is a survival skill that can be learned from a young age.
“If an earthquake hits and public transport is disrupted, they have to memorize how to go home from school on foot.”
Takahashi said teachers have their hands full, not only teaching, but also making sure children are following the allocated routes on their way home. Unlike the mornings, children have a bit more supervision in the afternoons given the amount of increased traffic later in the day.
“It sounds strange, but the teachers do a lot of work. They go out checking on what students are doing,” he said. “Maybe a lot of students would stop at a game center or eat ice cream.”
They’ll usually caution students who don’t go straight home. Plus, knowing that they’re potentially being monitored helps students not to wander off their routes too much.
In Japan, the level of independence given to children can also be explained by the country's relatively low level of crime. In 2019, the homicide rate in Japan was a low 0.3 cases per 100,000 people compared to 5.0 homicides per 100,000 in the US.
Takahashi explained that what is also unique about Japan is the number of police stations located in almost every neighborhood.
“There are actually a lot of police stations compared to the US. They are small police stations. If you live in the US, it’s hard to find a police station in the neighborhood, and they are usually in big buildings,” he said. “But Japanese police stations are like matchboxes, small booths.”
Trust is also extended to the community to look over the children.
In most suburbs of Tokyo and across Japan, a chime rings at 5 p.m. sharp every day. It’s a reminder that children are making their way home from school.
Second-grade teacher Tanaka explained that the broadcast plays an important role notifying the community to help local children return home safely.
“The mornings in this neighborhood are safe, as there has never been any incident at that time, but the evenings are more risky.”
“The mornings in this neighborhood are safe, as there has never been any incident at that time, but the evenings are more risky,” she explained. The 5 p.m. chime that is broadcast in this area basically says, “Please look after the children as they go home from school.”
Hata, the vice principal, said that while the popular TV show “Old Enough” is entertaining, he believes it's also an exaggeration for the sake of ratings.
“I've had my own kids run errands for me when they were small. But I think it's really uncommon to make children run errands all over the place at such faraway distances,” he said.
At the heart of Japanese parenting is a proverb that famously states, “if you love your child, send them on a journey.”
It means that, without overprotecting your kids, let them do things they can actually achieve.
“I’ve lived in the United States and also Venezuela, so I know just how dangerous it is all over the world,” Tanaka said. “Japan is special.”