First Errand

Roman Mars [00:00:03] Have a business, brand, or blog? You need Squarespace. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, content you create, and even your time. With member areas, you can unlock a new revenue stream for your business and free up time in your schedule by selling access to gated content, like classes, online courses, or newsletters. And stand out in any inbox with Squarespace email campaigns, using customizable templates. And Squarespace makes it easy to display posts from your social profiles and automatically push website content to your social media channels. Enter for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the promo code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Back in March, Netflix picked up a long running Japanese TV program based on a children’s book from the 1970s. On Netflix, 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 while wearing adorable, tiny sneakers. In the first episode, a two-and-a-half-year-old named Hiroki is sent to pick up curry, and flowers, and fish cakes at a market that’s a kilometer away. He stumbles down the street by himself. He passes lots of people, even a cop. But they pay him no mind. And then he makes it to the store where a kind clerk helps him find some chrysanthemums. Then, as Hiroki is leaving the shop–the dramatic climax of the episode–he realizes that he has forgotten the curry and he has to go back. But he eventually finds the curry, completes his quest, and makes the long trek home to his proud parents, dragging the flowers along the ground with boogers streaming down his face. 

Henry Grabar [00:03:25] When Old Enough debuted on Netflix, it was a hit. 

Roman Mars [00:03:28] That Slate reporter Henry Grabar. 

Henry Grabar [00:03:31] American audiences couldn’t get enough of these very cute kids and their very grown-up tasks. But there was another element drawing people to the show–a sense of disbelief. Who in their right mind would send a two-year-old kid out into the world like this? What’s to stop them from getting kidnaped or hit by a car? 

Roman Mars [00:03:50] One Netflix viewer tweeted, “Do this in the U.S. and the child will never be seen again.” 

Viewer [00:03:55] You guys know me. I mean, I raised my kids in bubbles, I protected them, and I put up some guardrails, but I would not do this. 

Henry Grabar [00:04:04] 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 Japanese children are remarkably independent from a very young age–way more independent than kids in the U.S. In Japanese cities, fifth graders make 85% of their weekday trips without a parent. 

Roman Mars [00:04:24] And this remarkable child mobility is made possible by everything from the neighbors next door to the width of the streets. 

Henry Grabar [00:04:33] It’s important to note that my first errand is reality TV. Like all reality TV, it’s not real–at least not completely. The kids on the show aren’t actually alone. There are producers following them every step of the way, hiding behind trash cans or pretending to be cab drivers. 

Roman Mars [00:04:49] And on the show, the kids are attempting their first errand at a much younger age than they would be in real life. 

Michi Waygood [00:04:55] Like they wouldn’t necessarily be, I mean, going out as a two-year-old, you know, if there wasn’t a camera crew around. That’s kind of for the TV show. They kind of, you know, make it a little bit more extreme. But the whole idea of kids going out when they’re five or six and, you know, getting whatever–some diapers for their little brother–that’s not dramatized. 

Henry Grabar [00:05:16] Michi Waygood was born in Japan, lived in New Jersey as a kid, and then moved back to Osaka at 13. She totally gets why the show has become such a hit, both in Japan and in the U.S. 

Michi Waygood [00:05:27] I mean, the kids are really, really cute. That’s one. But also, the whole overcoming adversity–like some of the most popular shows are the ones where the kid has some sort of mishap. 

Owen Waygood [00:05:38] Like the one where the girl–for hours–is trying to get a cabbage out of the ground. 

Henry Grabar [00:05:44] That’s Michi’s husband, Owen Waygood, describing an episode set in the country where a young girl struggles to harvest a cabbage from the family vegetable patch. 

Owen Waygood [00:05:52] And that kind of view into the child’s life as she’s walking away, going, “Oh, mom’s going to be like, ‘What took you so long? Why are you coming home when it’s getting dark?'” 

Henry Grabar [00:06:02] Both Michi and Owen have unique perspectives on my first errand–Michi because she grew up between Japan and the U.S., and Owen because he basically studies exactly what this show is all about. 

Owen Waygood [00:06:14] So my PhD topic was basically examining why children in Japan are able to get around by themselves. 

Henry Grabar [00:06:23] Owen is a professor at Polytechnique Montreal, but he did his doctoral thesis at Kyoto University. 

Owen Waygood [00:06:29] Just living there, you notice things are different. And one of the differences was that you saw kids getting around. You saw kids playing together in the park. You saw them on the subway. 

Roman Mars [00:06:40] And so Owen started researching children’s mobility, and he collaborated with Ayako Taniguchi, a professor of engineering at the University of Tsukuba. She remembers the first time she let her son go out solo. 

Henry Grabar [00:07:00] Professor Taniguchi says she didn’t let her son travel alone until he was in first grade because he was absent minded–a bit of a space cadet. And when he did walk to school for the first time, she followed at a distance. And sure enough, he got sidetracked; she saw him picking up bugs and chasing butterflies. 

Roman Mars [00:07:17] Professor Taniguchi thinks there are a few different cultural factors that make the tradition of First Errand possible. 

Henry Grabar [00:07:30] “First,” she says, “is an environment where everyone in the neighborhood feels responsible for the local children.” 

Roman Mars [00:07:34] They may not have TV producers following them, but when a child is walking by themselves to a corner store in Japan, they’re not really alone either. 

Henry Grabar [00:07:49] She says that in Japan there’s a culture of communities raising children collectively, and that communal culture is maintained in part through neighborhood associations. Everyone within a given area will pay monthly dues of around $2 to $5. Then the association will organize festivals and activities and help people get to know each other. Japan’s low crime rates bolster parents’ confidence, but local PTAs also map safe routes through neighborhoods and ask retirees to keep an eye out when kids are going to and from school. 

Roman Mars [00:08:18] This tight knit sense of community isn’t just present in small towns in the countryside. In his research, Owen found that contrary to Western stereotypes, neighborhoods in Japanese cities are even more communal than small towns–and that actually the more urban a kid was, the more likely they were to know people in their neighborhood. 

Owen Waygood [00:08:37] And there have been international studies that show that parents in Japan are the most likely to say that they know people that will help their children if need be. And it increases as you go more urban. 

Henry Grabar [00:08:51] But culture is only part of the story. The biggest reason why children in Japan are able to move around more freely is the way the country has designed its streets and neighborhoods. 

Owen Waygood [00:09:00] There is an expectation in Japan that children can get around by themselves. And so, if you have a cultural expectation that children can go places by themselves, you’re going to build a built environment that facilitates that. 

Roman Mars [00:09:15] And there are actually really specific aspects of that built environment that help children get around independently in Japan. Starting with zoning. 

Henry Grabar [00:09:25] In the U.S. 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. 

Owen Waygood [00:09:39] There’s no zone that says you can only have residential buildings here. So, the strictest zoning you can have–you can have some apartments, and you can have some small businesses and things like this. You can have a small office in a residential zone. And that type of development means that there are destinations within walking distance. 

Roman Mars [00:10:00] You are much more likely to find a shop or a grocery store that’s just a short walk from a kid’s house. 

Henry Grabar [00:10:07] The most important destination for children is, of course, school. Early on in his research, Owen went to an elementary school. 

Owen Waygood [00:10:14] And I met the principal, and I explained, “Oh, I’m looking at how children get around in Japan.” And I asked him, “So how do children get to school?” He kind of looked at me odd, and he said, “Well, they walk.” Almost in the, like, “How else would they get to school? This is how children get around. They can walk.” 

Roman Mars [00:10:35] In the United States, only about 10% of kids walk to school. In Japan, the number is more like 80%–and that’s possible because of a second design decision. In Japan, elementary schools are often built right in the center of neighborhoods. 

Owen Waygood [00:10:50] And the ironic part is that they took an idea from the U.S. that said that an elementary school should be the heart of a neighborhood. 

Henry Grabar [00:10:59] In 1929, an American planner named Clarence Perry famously outlined this idea–the school at the center of a neighborhood unit. 

Owen Waygood [00:11:07] So in terms of design, if you have the elementary school at the center of your neighborhood, it shortens the distance for everyone. 

Henry Grabar [00:11:14] After the Second World War, Japanese planners took inspiration from Perry as they rebuilt their cities. And so Japanese law says that no child should have to go more than two and a half miles to get to elementary school. And the distance is often much less. 

Roman Mars [00:11:29] 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. 

Henry Grabar [00:11:39] The United States has really wide streets, even in residential neighborhoods. These days, streets are often designed to be wide enough to give fire engines room to maneuver. But as car traffic has increased, those wide streets have encouraged fast driving and turned the walk to school into a dangerous obstacle course, even for kids who live close by. 

Owen Waygood [00:12:00] So you ended up with actually these almost Frankenstein, like, neighborhoods, where the neighborhood was intended to be built for families and children, but then it actually ended up just being really dangerous for kids to get around. 

Roman Mars [00:12:13] But in Japan, residential streets are much narrower. Interestingly, one reason why is that–unlike the U.S.–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. 

Owen Waygood [00:12:29] And so that historic part leads to streets that are much narrower. And if you have narrow streets, that naturally slows down vehicles. 

Henry Grabar [00:12:42] Satoshi Nakao is an engineering professor at Kyoto University. He’s doing research on the history of traffic accidents in Japan. Professor Nakano says that 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 kids play. At this point in our conversation, he actually picked up his laptop–we were talking on Zoom–and walked over to his window to show me the street outside. It couldn’t have been more than 20 feet across. Instead of building streets to fit the turning radius of a fire engine, like we do in the U.S., Japan just built smaller fire engines. 

Roman Mars [00:13:28] The next major design feature that makes Japanese streets safer for kids is pretty counterintuitive. 

Owen Waygood [00:13:34] The first day I was in Japan, I was walking on one of these streets without a sidewalk. So as a North American, in my head, I’m like, “I’m in a dangerous situation because there’s no sidewalk.” And as the cars were coming up behind me, I kept on kind of jumping up against the wall because my North American brain said, “You need to get out of the way of the car.” But I was watching everyone else–all these old ladies and children–walking along without a care in the world, and I kind of started noticing that “Oh, the cars pay attention to the pedestrians, and it’s the cars that move out of the way for them.” 

Henry Grabar [00:14:13] In fact, Owen thinks that sidewalks do more to benefit cars than they do pedestrians. 

Owen Waygood [00:14:18] It’s getting the pedestrian out of the way, allowing those cars to go high speed, and then you have fatal collisions at intersections. So, the starting point of the whole transportation planning is different. Like, are you simply planning to move cars, or are you planning for people of any age to be able to do the things that they need to do in their life? 

Henry Grabar [00:14:35] Japan does have wider arterial roads where traffic can move fast. Those roads usually do have sidewalks, stoplights, and crosswalks. But inside of neighborhoods, what you’ll mostly see are what sometimes get called “living streets.” 

Owen Waygood [00:14:50] So if you are in a neighborhood, you know, whether it’s Tokyo, or Kyoto, or wherever, that residential street–you’ll just see people kind of hanging out, chatting, talking, using that space as a public space. 

Roman Mars [00:15:05] And that is made possible by yet another urban design feature that gives these streets their distinctive feel–something even stranger to North Americans than no sidewalks: no parking. 

Henry Grabar [00:15:17] Japan doesn’t allow overnight street parking. In fact, you cannot buy a car in Japan unless you have an off-street parking space because cars are considered private property that shouldn’t be stored in an important public space. 

Roman Mars [00:15:30] Those parking rules have contributed to Japan’s low rate of urban car ownership and excellent public transit. But they have also made the streets safer. Without a wall of parked cars, drivers have a clear view of the whole street and can more easily spot a little kid who’s about to cross. The street is also seen as a valuable public space that deserves our care and attention. Here’s Michi Waygood again. 

Michi Waygood [00:15:57] Like, the guy in our neighborhood in Kyoto who would come out every morning and wash the area in front of his shop–it’s common practice in Japan, especially elderly people do it–but they come, and they actually wash down the part of the road that is in front of their shop or home. You know, they really take pride and, I guess, responsibility for that section. So, it’s really not seen as a space for cars to pass by. It’s part of their neighborhood–part of their home. 

Roman Mars [00:16:29] The downstream effect of all this urban planning stuff–the mixed-use zoning, the nearby schools, the narrow streets, the lack of sidewalks, the off-street parking–it has all conspired to make Japan a pretty great place for kids to get around independently. 

Henry Grabar [00:16:44] Although independence doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re always traveling alone. To make sure that even the smallest, most absent-minded kids can get to school on foot, Japan has implemented one of the world’s most adorable transportation innovations: the walking school bus [Japanese name]. 

Roman Mars [00:17:00] In a walking school bus, older kids pick up younger ones as the whole group makes its way into school. Each bus might cover a single apartment building or a few blocks of houses. The leader carries a yellow flag. Sometimes kids wear yellow hats. There’s a sense of safety in numbers, and it’s also just fun for the kids. 

Henry Grabar [00:17:19] Owen and I co-wrote about this practice a few years ago. Each family is sent information about when they need to have their child ready to get picked up by the walking school bus. 

Owen Waygood [00:17:29] So you have to have your child at your front door, ready to meet up with the other children from your small neighborhood, who are going to walk together to school. And it’s going to be children, so it’s going to be the grade fives and grade six that are leading that group. And it’s considered part of the school day. 

Roman Mars [00:17:47] Across Japan, walking to school isn’t just an option–it’s a given. Although Owen said that that principal that he talked with sometimes made exceptions. 

Owen Waygood [00:17:57] He’s like, “Oh. Well, occasionally if a child has broken their leg, we let their parents bring them by a car.” But he’s like, “But the cars are generally forbidden.” And again, it’s like, “Okay, what? The parents can’t bring the children by car?” Again, he looked at me kind of in that “this is a stupid question.” He said, “Yes, of course, because the cars would cause danger for the other children.”

Henry Grabar [00:18:20] Japanese people sometimes take these systems for granted. But they didn’t just happen. 

Roman Mars [00:18:25] The walking school bus took off in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, Japan had just become the second largest car producer in the world, and Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans were on the rise on Japanese roads. Here’s Satoshi Nakao again. 

Henry Grabar [00:18:44] He says that in 1970, Japan had a record high number of traffic fatalities. There were almost 17,000 car related deaths. But there were also widespread environmental protests, often led by mothers concerned about the dangers of cars and car pollution. 

Owen Waygood [00:19:03] And so Japan came up with some new policies, including one that’s still in place today: banning car traffic around elementary schools when kids are arriving in the morning. The roads got safer, and Japan’s tradition of walking to school was able to continue. 

Roman Mars [00:19:19] To North American eyes, Japan remains a utopia of free-range kids. Growing up between Osaka and New Jersey, Michi Waygood felt this difference profoundly. 

Michi Waygood [00:19:29] So when I was growing up in the States from 4 to 13, I was in, like, suburban New Jersey. So, the only place really that I could walk to was the public library down the street. Oh, no–and then there was one strip mall as well that I could get to. But that was about it. That was the extent of our freedom. 

Henry Grabar [00:19:51] But when Michi’s family moved back to Osaka, she and her friends would walk everywhere or get on their bikes and take off–go shopping, hang out in the park or in the rice paddies near school. 

Michi Waygood [00:20:01] And I don’t think I really realized how special that was growing up just because it just kind of seemed normal to me. I’m like, “Oh, that’s what we do in Japan, and this is what we do in the States.” And it wasn’t till I was older that I realized, “Oh, actually, it’s not a given.” 

Roman Mars [00:20:22] Today, Michi and Owen Waygood do not live in Japan; they’re raising their family in Quebec. But they still wanted their three kids to do a first errand. 

Michi Waygood [00:20:31] The idea of our kids being independent is really, really important to both of us. And because we spent a lot of time in Japan and have observed happy, independent kids doing this sort of thing all the time, we decided that, you know, it’s something that we really want to instill in our kids, too. 

Roman Mars [00:20:51] Coming up after the break, the Waygood kids do a first errand in Canada. 

Toma Waygood [00:20:56] I felt stressed–nervous–but when I did it, it wasn’t that hard. 

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Henry Grabar [00:26:12] So the Waygoods have moved to Canada. But they still wanted their children to do a first errand. I wanted to get the kids perspective on all this. So, we gave the mike to Mira and Tomer. 

Myra Waygood [00:26:23] So I’m Myra Waygood, and I’m 13 years old. 

Toma Waygood [00:26:28] I’m Toma Waygood, and I’m nine years old. 

Henry Grabar [00:26:33] Myra and Toma grew up watching my first errand on YouTube before the show was released on Netflix. They used it to practice their Japanese. 

Myra Waygood [00:26:41] Sometimes episodes can be kind of funny though when they are lost and like, “Oh no. What do I do?” But they always end up finding their way. 

Toma Waygood [00:26:47] If they wouldn’t find their way back, I don’t think they would put it on Netflix. 

Henry Grabar [00:26:52] Myra and Toma each did their first errand a bit later than the kids on the show. 

Myra Waygood [00:26:58] I was, like, six. It was in Quebec City, and I just remember being excited because we’re going to get Japanese rice cakes–mochi–which is a treat to us. So, we’re like, “Oh yeah. We can get a treat.” 

Henry Grabar [00:27:09] Toma also did his first errand when he was six, but where the family lives now–in Montreal. He was supposed to go to the store and get ingredients for dinner. His parents were feeling a little nervous because Toma does not have a great sense of direction. And so, Owen decided to draw him a map. 

Toma Waygood [00:27:25] But I was still like, “What if I go the wrong way, and then I miss it, and I get lost forever?” 

Michi Waygood [00:27:32] You know, had him go over it over and over again–how he’s going to get there, what he’s going to do, what he’s going to do when he crosses our little residential street. And then he took off. But I was really nervous about this one, so I tagged him the whole way. 

Henry Grabar [00:27:44] Michi followed Toma at a distance, keeping out of sight by ducking behind parked cars–like a producer on my first errand. 

Michi Waygood [00:27:51] I probably looked really, really suspicious. 

Henry Grabar [00:27:54] She watched as he entered the store. One of the ingredients he needed to find was ginger. 

Michi Waygood [00:27:58] But the ginger was kind of on a shelf that was too high for him to reach. And so, he went in there, probably couldn’t reach it, and then, I guess, he did some quick problem solving. 

Toma Waygood [00:28:09] One of the things I couldn’t reach, so I had to ask someone. 

Michi Waygood [00:28:14] He asked someone that was working there to get the ginger for him. 

Toma Waygood [00:28:17] It took me courage because I was very shy and nervous. But yeah, I did it. I got it. And then I felt proud of myself. 

Henry Grabar [00:28:29] How did Owen and Michi make this Japanese practice work in Canada? Partly through diligent preparation. 

Michi Waygood [00:28:35] You know, like, another thing that I kind of want understood is that we don’t just kick the kids out the door and be like, “Good luck, guys.” You know, we really put in the groundwork. We practice with them a lot. You know, we go through different scenarios of if they get lost or if something happens. So, by the time that they’re ready to go out on their own, they’re very, very confident and they feel really good about themselves for doing it. 

Roman Mars [00:28:55] But the most important piece of groundwork was picking the right neighborhood in the first place. 

Owen Waygood [00:29:00] We didn’t just randomly choose a neighborhood to live in. To some extent, we looked for that neighborhood where it would be feasible. 

Roman Mars [00:29:09] And they ended up in a dense and walkable part of town, where most things they need are just a short walk away. 

Owen Waygood [00:29:15] So that acted a bit like a Japanese neighborhood in that fashion. 

Henry Grabar [00:29:21] In other words, they found a neighborhood that came close to recreating the urbanism they prized in Japan. And that, in turn, helped them give their kids a Japanese-style sense of independence. There’s one street in their neighborhood that actually gets close to cars during the summer. It’s kind of like a living street in Japan. 

Myra Waygood [00:29:39] It’s nice because we don’t have to really worry about there being cars there. And it’s a big space where we can just get our rollerblades, or our scooters, or whatever and just hang around there. 

Roman Mars [00:29:53] And when the kids do travel on streets with lots of traffic, they are extra careful. 

Toma Waygood [00:29:57] Especially when it’s trucks because trucks are huge and a lot of the time, they can’t see me. 

Myra Waygood [00:30:04] You make, like, eye-contact with the drivers–make sure they see you. 

Toma Waygood [00:30:09] When I was younger, I just, like, put my hand up like that, so he can at least a hand. 

Myra Waygood [00:30:14] See, like, the tips of your fingers. 

Henry Grabar [00:30:21] The Waygoods were able to find a little slice of Japanese urbanism for their kids growing up in Quebec. But the cultural side of children’s mobility still isn’t there. 

Toma Waygood [00:30:31] For me, what bothers me the most is the social eye–like, almost the stigma of letting young children go off on their own. 

Roman Mars [00:30:41] The judgment of friends and neighbors can fall especially hard on Michi. She says that mothers in particular are expected to always be hovering and protective of their children. 

Toma Waygood [00:30:50] But that’s something that I had to actively try to ignore, if you will while doing this for the kids because, I mean, every mother has all these terrible thoughts going through their head all the time about what might happen to their kids. But, you know, it’s really my job to make sure that my kids are well equipped to live life and, you know, handle obstacles, and all of that stuff–and not for me to be there all the time for them. 

Henry Grabar [00:31:19] A few years ago, a single father in Vancouver spent two years teaching his kids–ages seven and ten–how to use the city bus to get to school. Someone complained to the Child Protection Service in British Columbia, and the dad was told to stop. He sued the province, lost in court, and finally won on appeal. 

Roman Mars [00:31:37] And he got lucky. In the U.S., parents can be fined or jailed for leaving their children alone in public. This is worse for parents of color, who are often more harshly scrutinized by neighbors, police, and social workers. In 2014, a South Carolina mom was arrested for letting her nine-year-old play in the park while she worked a shift at a nearby McDonald’s. 

Henry Grabar [00:31:57] But Michi and Owen say that going against the grain has been worth it for their family. They’ve watched their kids grow into confident, self-reliant people. Toma and Myra are a little older now. Myra’s 13. She takes the metro and the bus to school every day. It’s a 40-minute commute that she does all by herself. I asked the kids whether they think other parents in the U.S. and Canada should give this a try. 

Myra Waygood [00:32:22] Yeah, because it gives the kids much more liberty to go around places themselves and they don’t always have to wait for the parents. The parents can do their own things more, I feel like, if their kids can go out and they don’t have to go with them. Toma, you have anything to say? 

Toma Waygood [00:32:41] Yeah, they should try it out. If they’re too scared, I understand. If they didn’t do this already, they could ask their parents to maybe, like, make a map like my parents did. It helped me. And then now when I’m doing it more often, it’s much more normal for me and I’m not really scared anymore. 

Henry Grabar [00:33:13] But the truth is, it wasn’t the map of the neighborhood that got six-year-old Toma to the store. It was the neighborhood itself–a place with mixed-use zoning, small streets, and low speed limits. There’s also a local park he can easily get to on his own. 

Roman Mars [00:33:29] Most kids aren’t so lucky. So much of the built environment in North America has been designed to get grown-ups–in cars–to work, not to help little kids safely walk to school. And so, if we want to give other families the chance to do this, it’s going to require us to build our cities with six-year-olds in mind. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Henry Grabar, edited by Emmett FitzGerald and Kelly Prime. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix and additional production by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Our executive producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of team includes Vivian Le, Jayson De Leon, Christopher Johnson, Chris Berube, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Megumi Yamamoto, who helped us with translation this week, and to producer Ellen Payne Smith, who juggled multiple microphones to help us interview the Waygood family. Thanks also to Rebecca Clements, who turned reporter Henry Grabar onto my first errand. You can find the link to Henry’s original story about the show in Slate on our website. Also, Henry has a new book coming out next year called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. I mean–if you can’t tell from that title, you don’t know me very well–but I am very much looking forward to this book. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me at Roman Mars and the show at We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 

Stitcher Robot [00:35:20] S.T. I. T. C. H. E. R. What word does it make?

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  1. Sean Redmond

    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.

  2. Patrick

    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.

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