Why Japanese Kids Can Walk to School Alone

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Japan is well known for its unparalleled technological advancements which are greatly emulated by western nations. However, there is something much more beautiful that escapes public view. It’s the air of bonhomie that usually lingers out there in Japanese cites.

Children can be seen walking about with gay abandon, clad in their uniforms with a backpack, travelling on trains. These children are usually in the age group of 6-7 commuting to and from schools and market-places with no one to take care of them.

These children appear to be going about carrying out usual daily life task but they are actually part of a popular television program called Hajimete no Otsukai meaning, ‘My first errand’. According to the rules of the show, they are assigned to carry a task for their family. T.V crew films them in their act as they go from place to place collecting the item asked for. This show has been going on for more than two decades and is hugely popular with the Japanese audience.

A kid in Tokyo named Kaito, has been travelling between his parents’ homes since the age of 9. “At first I was a little worried whether I could ride the train alone but only a little worried,” said Kaito, who has been in the custody of his parents for quite some time now and is at home travelling long distances.

It’s pretty easy now, he says. He also said that his parents were a bit worried for him in the beginning but gradually felt at ease when they noticed other children commuting without much issue.

“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,” said Kaito’s step-mother on the condition of anonymity.

“I took the trains on my own when I was younger than him in Tokyo,” recounted his stepmother. “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.”

One wonders as to what exactly underlies this great sense of freedom that people back there, have? Cultural anthropologist, Dwayne Dixon, who wrote a thesis on Japanese youth as a part of his advance degree program, came out with a possible answer to this perplexing question. According to him it’s the ‘group reliance’ and not the ‘personal capacity’ of a kid that encourages him/her to venture out care-free. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he explained.

She wouldn’t let a 9-year-old ride the subway alone in London or New York—just in Tokyo.

Owning the responsibility at a young age, to clean-up shared public utility spaces, instills in them a sense of pride and discipline that prepares them for future hardships. They also become aware of the importance of cleaning after themselves and carry it forward into adulthood. This brings about the transformation in the mass-psyche and as a result everyone feels a sense of brotherhood. Children take comfort in this fact and venture out fearlessly.

“Public space is scaled so much better—old, human-sized spaces that also control flow and speed,” Dixon observes. Unlike western metropolises, travelling by public transport, such as train, is pretty customary in Japan and it is preferred to car-travel on any given day. People cover a major part of their travel on train, followed by a brisk walk to and from workplace. Japanese drivers are conscious of the fact as well and do make it a point to give way to pedestrians and cyclists.

Kaito’s mother bluntly admits that she would never allow a 9-year old ride the subway alone in a city like New York or London except Tokyo. But it doesn’t mean the subways in Tokyo are safe and sound. One can get a good measure of security-situation from the fact that women-only cars had to be introduced on few of the routes to ensure safe-travel for women and girls in the city. Despite this, you can find children travelling on train-cars and running errands devoid of parental supervision.

It’s a great display of trust, on community as a whole, by parents allowing their kids to roam about freely and go about doing their daily tasks out in public. “Plenty of kids across the world are self-sufficient,” notes Dixon. “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.”

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