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 6 or 7, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight.
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.
Kaito, a 12-year-old in Tokyo, has been riding the train by himself between the homes of his parents, who share his custody, since he was 9. “At first I was a little worried,” he admits, “whether I could ride the train alone. But only a little worried.”
Now, he says, it’s easy. His parents were apprehensive at first, too, but they went ahead because they felt he was old enough, and lots of other kids were doing it safely.
“Honestly, what I remember thinking at the time is, the trains are safe and on time and easy to navigate, and he’s a smart kid,” Kaito’s stepmother says. (His parents asked not to publish his last name and their names for the sake of privacy.)
“I took the trains on my own when I was younger than him in Tokyo,” his stepmother recalls. “We didn’t have cellphones back in my day, but I still managed to go from point A to point B on the train. If he gets lost, he can call us.”
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.
Japan has a very low crime rate, which is surely a key reason parents feel confident about sending their kids out alone. But small-scaled urban spaces and a culture of walking and transit use also foster safety and, perhaps just as important, the perception of safety.
“Public space is scaled so much better—old, human-sized spaces that also control flow and speed,” Dixon notes. In Japanese cities, people are accustomed to walking everywhere, and public transportation trumps car culture; in Tokyo, half of all trips are made on rail or bus, and a quarter on foot. Drivers are used to sharing the road and yielding to pedestrians and cyclists.
Kaito’s stepmother says she wouldn’t let a 9-year-old ride the subway alone in London or New York—just in Tokyo. That’s not to say the Tokyo subway is risk-free. The persistent problem of women and girls being groped, for example, led to the introduction of women-only cars on select lines starting in 2000. Still, many city children continue to take the train to school and run errands in their neighborhood without close supervision.
By giving them this freedom, parents are placing significant trust not only in their kids, but in the whole community. “Plenty of kids across the world are self-sufficient,” Dixon observes. “But the thing that I suspect Westerners are intrigued by [in Japan] is the sense of trust and cooperation that occurs, often unspoken or unsolicited.”