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.
My First errand
I grew up in the suburbs of Dublin in the 1970s and I worked as an ALT on the JET Programme in rural Niigata in the mid 1990s.
None of what you described seemed strange to me when I was there. We had to walk to primary school too and we usually walked in groups. We weren’t allowed to cross the road at any place, we had to either cross at the traffic lights or go by the lollipop man.
In Japan, I sometimes walked with the children on their way home (I was on my way to the supermarket to buy dinner). It was a good way to practice my Japanese (We had strawberry milk for lunch today. I like it!) and learn about them. Since my job there was to be the Western Person amongst other things, nobody complained that I was talking to children and people liked that I got involved in the community. You get used to the lack of footpaths and the drivers there are very nice.
In Ireland too it was expected that children walk everywhere (or take their bike) if they can. This began to slowly change around the early 1980s. Not every family had two cars and the father usually drove to work on account to the abysmal Irish public transport system. If there was any fear for the children, it was from other children.
I remember being sent for errands at a very early age. It started going to a next door neighbour to bring something back, or to tell someone to come home for dinner. My younger brother and I (aged 3) walked to playschool some roads away on our own. later on we went up to the field at the end of our road to play football or go around to the next road to play with a friend. This was in low-babies and high-babies (4-5 years’ old). We were quite independent at a very young age. The main rule is that our mothers knew where we were. If we said we were going to the field, then we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else. We must either come home first or be collected by her there. And if we did go somewhere else (say, to my friend Liam’s house) then his mammy would have to call my mammy on the phone, but then you were being bold (=naughty) for not staying put.
I just moved back to the US from Japan last year after 5 years living in Kanagawa, which is basically part of the Tokyo metro area. What you describe isn’t just due to infrastructure, it’s due to a homogeneous society that has little to no diversity. The nail that sticks up gets hammered. If the government says to do something, everyone does it. The entire time I lived there, I biked, walked, and took transit everywhere, and yes, it was fantastic. Another thing you didn’t touch on was how incredibly difficult it is to get a driver’s license and to own a car, unlike in the US where licenses come in a cracker jack box, you need many hours of driver training on the road at your cost and then the expensive fees. Also mamacharis or mom bikes are basically many families “cars” basically the eBikes that everyone in the US is freaking out about how to manage have been in Japan for years and serve as transport for mom/dad and kids as well as groceries and even pets as well.