TOKYO – Three-year-old Yuka steps into an intersection that divides a four-lane road into two. “Even if the lights are green,” says one narrator in one voice, “he’s still looking for cars!”
So did “Old Enough!”, a Japanese reality show that started streaming on Netflix in late March. A typical scene begins in It is new to American audiences but has been running in Japan for over three decades.
The show’s popularity in Japan is a reflection of the country’s high level of public safety, as well as a parenting culture that views children’s independence as a key marker of their development.
“It’s a typical way of raising children in Japan and a symbol of our cultural attitude, which can be surprising to people in other countries,” said Toshiyuki Shiomi, an expert on child development and at Shiraume Gakuen University in Tokyo. A Professor Emeritus.
small and beautiful
“Very old!” Initially running on Nippon TV as part of another show since 1991. It was inspired by Yoriko Tsutsui’s 1977 children’s book “Mickey’s First Errand,” which tells the story of a mother who sends her 5-year-old daughter. Went out to buy milk for the younger brother.
Edited “Old Enough!” The episodes that appear on Netflix are short (about 15 minutes or less) and upbeat. They track children under 2 as they attempt to play errands in public for the first time, with a studio audience laughing in the background. The safety spotters and camera crew hide offscreen, with mixed results; They often stumble into the frame.
As children navigate crosswalks and busy public spaces full of adults, a narrator describes their incremental progress in a breathless tone like a commentator calling a baseball game in the ninth inning. And toddlers start conversations with strangers they meet along the way.
“Mom said, instead, I’ll go to the stores today,” 3-year-old Yuka tells a shopkeeper in the coastal town of Akashi as she buys udon noodles for a family meal.
“Really?” The shopkeeper answers. “Aren’t you a smart thing?”
Tasks inevitably go awry. For example, Yuka forgets to buy tempura for a while, and another 3-year-old forgets what she’s been told to do because she’s too busy talking to herself. In other episodes, the children leave their cargo (live fish, in one case) or refuse to leave the house in the first place.
When Ao’s father of 2-year-old Ao, a sushi chef, asks him to take some soy-sauce-stained chef’s whites to a nearby laundromat, he doesn’t budge.
“I can’t do it,” Ao tells his father, standing outside the family home holding dirty linens in a plastic bag.
Eventually, Ao’s mother convinces him to leave, partly by bribing him with a snack. “It’s painful, isn’t it?” The father tells him as the boy walks down the road alone. “it breaks my heart.”
“You’re too soft on that,” she replies.
a rite of passage
Professor Xiomi said that in Japan, parents tried to instill a certain kind of self-reliance in their children. “In Japanese culture, freedom does not mean arguing with others or expressing oneself,” he said. “That means adapting yourself to the group while managing daily tasks like cooking, working, and greeting others.”
He said it is common practice for children in Japanese schools to clean classrooms. And at home, parents even give young children pocket money for their expenses and expect them to help with food preparation and other chores.
In a famous example of this culture, Princess Eko, a member of Japan’s royal family, walked alone to elementary school in the early 2000s. (She was always under surveillance by the Imperial Household Police.)
In the Tokyo area, a production company, Wagakoto, films short documentaries of children running the works, for a fee starting around $120. Company founder Jun Nitsuma called the service “Old Enough!” was inspired by. and “Miki’s First Errand,” and customers paid for it because they wanted a record of how independent their kids had become.
“It’s a sacrament” for both the children and their parents, Mr. Nitsuma said. “These works have been a very symbolic mission for decades.”
room for debate
Before Netflix called “Old Enough!” It was adapted for audiences in the UK, China, Italy, Singapore and Vietnam.
“‘Old enough!’ A reminder that unique storytelling can break down cultural and language barriers, and connect entertainment fans globally,” said Kata Sakamoto, vice president of Japan content at Netflix.
The show has some critics in Japan. Their main arguments seem to be that children’s actions essentially equate to coercion, or that the show may lead parents to harm their children.
Violent crimes are rare in Japan. Still, some academics argue that general safety metrics paint a misleading picture of public safety. They point to recent studies by the Ministry of Justice showing that the incidence of crime in Japan, particularly sex crimes, is higher than what residents report to local police departments.
“It’s a terrible show!” Nobuo Komiya, a criminologist at Risho University in Tokyo who has advised municipalities across Japan on public safety.
“This TV station has been airing this program for years, and it has been so popular,” he said. “But Japan is really full of danger. This myth of security is created by the media.”
Supporters even acknowledge that “quite old!” Made for a bygone era in which various social norms governed the behavior of children.
Today, there is a growing debate in Japan about whether forcing young children to work is good for their development, as was once widely believed, Professor Shiomi said. And parents no longer take public safety lightly.
“I myself sent my 3 or 4 year old to a vegetable shop for a job,” he said. “She was able to get there, but could not remember the way back because she did not have a clear image of the route. So the shop owner brought him home.”
Hisako Uno reported from Tokyo, and Mike Ives from Seoul.