Ramen chef Kantaro Ishii has fond memories of working at his father’s izakaya near their home in the city of Sendai, Japan.
“Izakayas (informal bars that serve alcohol and snacks) are busy establishments,” he said. “There’s very little room for mistakes.”
Ishii, the eldest of two boys, would often go to the market in the mornings to buy rice, vegetables and eel, then take the bus to pick up the restaurant linen from a laundromat a couple of blocks away. It was hard work and “a huge amount of responsibility,” he said, and “very overwhelming at the start.”
He was only five.
“I would cry whenever people at the shops or market would ask where my parents were,” said Ishii, now 28. “After all, I was just a kid and it was my first real footing into the world. It was scary.”
Young children running adult errands on their own isn’t rare in Japan. It’s a tradition that has caught the attention of TV viewers the world over since Netflix began showing re-runs of a wildly popular Japanese variety show from the 1990s.
“Old Enough!” — dubbed “the most wholesome show you’ve ever seen” by the streaming giant on the show’s debut in March — is an unscripted series in which Japanese toddlers between the ages of 2 and 5 are sent on simple errands to help their parents, entirely without supervision and often while navigating busy roads and transport systems.
In one episode, two bickering pre-schooler cousins are forced to work together to navigate traffic lights and cross streets, all while delivering a bag of groceries to their grandmother. After some tears, they eventually reach their destination and learn to put aside their differences. One of the most popular episodes of the series sees a 3-year-old named Yuka venturing out to her local market to help her mother buy fresh seafood for dinner — charming the vendors in the process.
The show won widespread applause in Japan when it debuted on Nippon TV in 1991 and the re-runs have been a hit too, even if American audiences seem unsure of what to make of it.
The response to the show in the US has ranged from amusement — Selena Gomez has parodied it in a skit for “Saturday Night Live” — to disbelief, to shock and condemnation.
“Do this in the US and the child will never be seen again,” one viewer wrote on Twitter. “It’s crazy that they just let them walk around in public,” said another. Some even accused Netflix of “promoting negligence and child endangerment.”
For some American parents, there is even a faint sense of envy that some of their Japanese counterparts are seemingly able to let children roam free relatively safe in the knowledge that Japan’s comparably low-crime environment means they are unlikely to come to harm.
“I don’t think I could have done this with my child at this young an age,” said one Twitter user. “I would’ve had a full on anxiety attack knowing how accident prone she is and all those weirdos out there in the world.
A disappearing tradition
The show’s creators maintain that it is safe and that production staff and camera crew are always around and on standby. Some even wear costumes to pretend they are road electricians or regular passersby but are at all times, “instructed not to initiate conversation” with the children.
“They know that when a child talks to them, they need to deal with the situation like an adult would and they are instructed not to initiate conversation with the child,” said executive director Junji Ouchi.
Ouchi said the original idea behind the show had been to “document the ‘errand tradition’ before it gradually disappears.”
“Family situations have changed drastically over the 30-plus years since we started this, yet in Japan, the tradition of sending children on errands remains,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we were making a show for television. It was more of a documentary. (We tried) to find families who would allow us to record their stories.”
The children, of course, are not always successful in their missions and there are many challenges. Groceries get lost or forgotten and distractions along the way are plenty. But there are 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 it might not reflect life in all parts of the country.
“What you see on the show may seem entertaining but it definitely isn’t staged,” said Emi Sakashita, a working mother from Tokyo now living in Singapore, who said toddlers were much more likely to be allowed to roam free in quieter suburbs and countryside towns. “Traffic and other risks are much higher in places like Tokyo or Osaka,” she said. “Parents (in those cities) will usually wait until their kids are much older before allowing them to go out and do things on their own without any supervision.”
Others point out that it is common to see Japanese children going to school on their own and that Japan’s low crime rate, excellent urban planning and modern infrastructure means it is relatively safe for them to do so. Neighborhoods are designed with young children in mind; speed limits are low and drivers give way to pedestrians.
Sakashita, 43, who can still recall her own coming-of-age experience navigating streets and public transport, said the practice was important to “instil independence and confidence in children.”
“But Japanese parents really do cry when we see our kids going out and doing things on their own for the first time,” she said.
“We really like to see them try little by little and want to rely on them when they’re older to help us out. Many of us also have little choice. We work hard and often for long hours and don’t always have parents or live-in help so it’s important that our kids become independent.”
Her son Kanta has been venturing out on his own since he was three to buy fruits, drinks and snacks. He is now 8 and takes the bus to school by himself. “He was really brave but didn’t enjoy (the independence) at first. He found it scary,” Sakashita said.
His sister Kokoro, 5, walks to kindergarten on her own.
Both siblings have taken inspiration from “Old Enough!”. “They are very impressed when they see kids on the show running errands and finishing chores,” Sakashita said.