Why Are Little Kids in Japan So Independent?

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Why are little kids in Japan so independent?

It’s a common sight on Japanese mass transit: children troop through train cars, singly or in small groups, looking for seats.

They wear knee socks, polished patent leather shoes, and plaid jumpers, with wide-brimmed hats fastened under the chin and train passes pinned to their backpacks. The kids are as young as six or seven, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight.

Parents in Japan regularly send their kids out into the world at a very young age. A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family. As they tentatively make their way to the greengrocer or bakery, their progress is secretly filmed by a camera crew. The show has been running for more than 25 years.

It’s not exactly independence:

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance,” according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance,” Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.


  1. David says:

    “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.

    So maybe non-diversity is a strength, then, too.

  2. T. Greer says:

    The problem with this article is that it treats Tokyo as typical, but you see the same patterns in Japan’s rural areas, where their isn’t a mass of people to continually rely on or watch the kids in question.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I don’t think the issue is how many people will help the child, but rather what fraction — and how few are dangerous, scary, etc.

  4. A.B. Prosper says:

    As David said, Non-Diversity, near Homogeneity, is strength. However, a caveat: it’s also highly cultural. Japan is safe and very law abiding, and, barring a very rare sicko, no one would hurt a child. Even some 100% European areas are not as stable.

  5. A Boy and His Dog says:

    Japan hasn’t had a moral hysteria about kidnapping like the USA yet. That’s the main difference.

  6. Bruce says:

    When I was 5-10, my actions were shaped more by getting beat up by kids my age than fear of adult criminals. I don’t even remember my parents giving me a speech about taking candy from strangers. I never saw an adult prey on a child. Sure got beat up by kids though. And not by bad kids- I was just annoying. Maybe Japanese kids are raised to be less annoying.

  7. Grasspunk says:

    T. Greer, I’d be more worried to do this in the city than in the country where everybody knows everybody else.

    Maybe American parents are signalling “good parenting” by always controlling activities?

    Or maybe modern mall culture is the problem. For a suburban kid, where in the world do you go to do errands?

    Finally maybe the number and speed of vehicles on local streets is the risk, not the weirdos. That’s what I’d be worried about with my crew. I’ve never been to Tokyo but it seems to have a decent pedestrian culture.

  8. Spandrell says:

    Some kid gets kidnapped every once in a while, but the criminals are caught very soon, and they get a long, long time in prison.

    And children do get run over by cars too, but the driver also gets a long, long time in prison.

    People let kids go outside alone because it is actually safe. It’s that simple.

    Also note that they don’t let 6-year-olds go outside and play. They go to school by themselves, they do errands. They follow orders; once the order is complete they must go back home, or else.

    Kids beating each other up does happen, but that’s mostly teenagers, and you can hardly argue that teenagers shouldn’t be allowed out of the house.

  9. Candide III says:

    T. Greer: Tokyo is rather typical in this sense, because most of it is actually detached houses and small cheap condos — a collection of villages and small towns, as it were — rather than the concrete jungle that comes to mind when one thinks “Tokyo”.

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