Netflix’s Old Enough: Are Japanese kids as independent as the show portrays them?

Ramen chef Kantaro Ishii has fond memories of working at his father’s izakaya near their home in Sendai City, Japan.

“Izakayas (casual bars serving alcohol and snacks) are busy establishments,” he said. “There is very little room for error.”

Ishii, the eldest of two boys, usually goes to the market in the morning to buy rice, vegetables and eel, then takes a bus to pick up linen from a laundromat a few blocks away. It’s hard work and “a huge amount of responsibility,” he said, and “very stressful to get started.”

He’s only five years old.

Ishii, now 28, said: “I would cry whenever people at the store or market asked where my parents were.

Young children doing errands for adults on their own is not uncommon in Japan. It’s a tradition that has captured the attention of television audiences around the world since Netflix began rebroadcasting a hugely popular Japanese variety show in the 1990s.

“Old enough!” – dubbed “the healthiest show you’ll ever watch” by the streaming giant when it launched in March – is a series with no description in which Japanese kids aged 2 to 5 are sent to do simple errands to help their parents, completely unattended and often while navigating busy roads and traffic systems.

In one episode, two bickering cousins ​​in preschool are forced to work together to navigate traffic lights and cross the street, all while delivering a bag of groceries to their grandmother. After a few tears, they finally reach their destination and learn to put their differences aside. One of the most popular episodes of the series is the scene where a 3-year-old girl named Yuka ventures to the local market to help her mother buy fresh seafood for dinner – seducing the vendors in the process.

The show won widespread acclaim in Japan when it first premiered on Nipon TV in 1991, and its reruns have been hugely successful, even as American audiences didn’t seem to know what to expect. doing what.

Reactions to the show in the US ranged from amusement – Selena Gomez parodied it in a skit of “Saturday Night Live” – ​​to skepticism, to shock and condemnation.

“Do this in America and the kid will never be seen again,” one viewer wrote on Twitter. “It’s crazy that they just let them walk around in public,” another said. Some even accused Netflix of “advertising carelessly and endangering children.”

For some American parents, it’s even a little jealous that some of their Japanese colleagues seem to be able to let children roam relatively safe, knowing that the crime environment is relatively safe. Japan’s low means they are unlikely to cause harm.

One Twitter user said: “I don’t think I can do this with my kids at this age. “I’m going to have a nervous attack knowing how accident-prone she is and all the weirdos out there in the world.

“Perhaps it only works in Japan. It’s a marvel to see.”

A tradition is disappearing

The show’s creators insist that it’s safe and that the production staff and camera crew are always around and on standby. Some even dress up as street electricians or regular passers-by, but are always “instructed not to start a conversation”.

“They know that when a child talks to them, they need to deal with the situation like an adult, and they are instructed not to initiate a conversation with the child,” said CEO Junji Ouchi.

Ouchi said the original idea behind the show was to “record the ‘errand tradition’ before it fades away.”

“Family circumstances have changed dramatically in the more than 30 years since we started this business, but in Japan the tradition of sending children to do errands remains,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we were doing a TV show. It was more of a documentary. (We tried) to find families who would allow us to document their stories.”

The children, of course, are not always successful in their tasks and there are many challenges left. Lost or forgotten groceries and lots of distractions along the way. But there were no disasters – something that has added to the skepticism of some critics, who question whether it is stage-managed.

But Japanese parents have defended the show’s portrayal – while noting that it may not reflect life in all parts of the country.

“What you see in the show looks interesting but it’s definitely not staged,” said Emi Sakashita, a working mother from Tokyo who now lives in Singapore, where toddlers are more likely to be allowed to roam freely in the quieter suburbs and rural towns. “Traffic and other risks are much higher in places like Tokyo or Osaka,” she said. “Parents (in those cities) will often wait until their kids are much older before allowing them to go out and do things alone without any supervision.”

Others point out that it is common for Japanese children to go to school on their own, and that Japan’s low crime rate, excellent urban planning and modern infrastructure mean they are relatively safe. Neighborhoods are designed for young children; Speed ​​limits are low and drivers must yield to pedestrians.

Sakashita, 43, who can still recall her own experience entering adulthood navigating the streets and public transport, says the practice is important for “training your character” independence and confidence for children.”

“But Japanese parents really cried when we first saw our kids go out and do things on their own,” she said.

“We really love to see them try little by little and want to lean on them when they’re older to help us. Many of us also have little choice. We work hard and often for many. hours and not always with a parent around or one-on-one help, so it’s important for our children to become independent.”

Her son Kanta has ventured out on his own to buy fruit, drinks and snacks since the age of three. He is 8 years old now and rides the bus to school by himself. “He was really brave but didn’t like (independence) at first. He found it scary,” Sakashita said.

His younger sister, Kokoro, 5 years old, attends kindergarten by herself.

Both brothers were inspired by “Old Enough!”. “They are very impressed when they see the children in the program running errands and completing the housework,” Sakashita said.

“They even compared their age to the kids on the show and said they do what they do, too.”

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