Back in March, Netflix picked up a long running Japanese TV program based on a children’s book from the 1970s. The show is called Old Enough, but the name of the original Japanese program translates to My First Errand. Because in each episode, a child runs an errand for the very first time. Episodes are only 10 to 20 minutes long, but in that short time a toddler treats the audience to a bite-sized hero’s journey.
My First Errand is a gimmicky show with hokey music and a laugh track, but it’s also rooted in a truth about Japanese society: most children are remarkably independent from a very young age — way more independent than children in the US. In Japanese cities, fifth-graders make 85 percent of their weekday trips without a parent. And this remarkable child mobility is made possible by everything from the neighbors next door to the width of the streets.
In the US and Canada, cities are usually divided up into distinct zones. You have a residential zone and a commercial zone. And if you want to go shopping or go to work you have to travel between them, which often requires a car. But that’s not true in Japan.
There, everything from grocery stores to schools are mixed in and often closer to home. This is also true of elementary schools, which are often located right in the heart of the neighborhood.
But it’s not just the distance between home and school that determines whether kids can safely make the walk. There’s also another urban design factor: the size of the streets. In Japan, residential streets are much narrower. In part, unlike in the US, horse-drawn carriages never became common on Japanese streets in the era before the automobile. And without carriage traffic, streets just didn’t need to be that wide.
Traditionally, Japanese cities didn’t have large plazas, and so these narrow streets were the key public spaces where people went shopping, got to know each other, and let their children play. Residential streets in Japan also tend not to have sidewalks. It’s easy to assume this makes the streets more dangerous for children, but cars are expected to watch out for pedestrians and cyclists and move out of the way for them. It also helps that cars are not allowed to park on the street overnight — owners must have off-street parking spaces. Without a wall of parked cars, it’s easier for drivers to see children who might be getting ready to cross the street.
The downstream effect is that of all of this urban planning stuff — the mixed-use zoning, the nearby schools, the narrow streets, the lack of sidewalks, and the off-street parking — has conspired to make Japan a pretty great place for kids to get around independently.