In Japan, cities are so well managed that 3-year-olds can walk alone

The principle of “Comme les grands”, a Japanese reality TV show that has just hit Netflix, is childishly simple. In every 10-minute episode, a toddler sets off to make his first purchases on his own (well, on his own with the cameramen), sobs and, completing the mission, ends up returning to mom and dad with his arms full of plastic bags .

“Hajimete no Otsukai”, a program based on a 1977 children’s book of the same name, has been on Japanese television for more than thirty years – long enough to parents of some children from the last episodes have also appeared there!

In the first of twenty episodes offered to Netflix subscribers, a 2-year-old little guy goes to the city grocery store to shop for his mom. In the fourth, 3-year-old Yuka crosses a five-lane in Akashi, a city the size of Cincinnati [le double de Paris en superficie, ndlr]to get to the fish market. “Can you get to Uonotana without being hit by a car?” asks his mother.

A matter of choice

Needless to say, if the show took place in the United States, the parents would have child protection on the hook and the children would be placed in immediate care. Like many Japanese things, it would be easy to attribute “Hajimete no Otsukai” (literally “the first commissions”) to certain clichés about Japanese essentialism. But the Japanese are not that different from us. They have just made choices that allow children to shop on their own ten years before their American counterparts.

“In Japan, many children go to school in the neighborhood on their own and on foot, this is perfectly normal”, explains Hironori Kato, who teaches transportation planning at the University of Tokyo. The average Japanese child usually does not go shopping in the city for mom and dad at the age of 2 or 3, he points out, as is the case in the show. That said, the comic, TV-friendly premise emphasizes only one truth about Japanese society: From a very young age, children there enjoy an unusual degree of independence.

Neighboring schools account for a good portion of these trips, and many of them use “pedibuses.”

“Roads and streets are organized so children can walk on them safely”, Kato explains. Here are his arguments: In Japan, drivers are taught to give in to pedestrians. Speed ​​limits are low. Neighborhoods have small town blocks with a host of intersections. This means that children have to cross the street a lot, but also that cars have to drive slowly, if nothing else for their own sake.

Even the streets are different. Many small lanes do not have raised sidewalks, and pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are expected to share space. Few cars park along the sidewalks, and there are few parking spaces, providing better visibility for motorists and pedestrians and helping to give the small streets of major Japanese cities their distinctive atmosphere.

Right to town

In fact, the first time I heard about “Hajimete no Otsukai”, it was from the mouth of Rebecca Clements, a researcher at the University of Sydney, who wrote a dissertation on parking in Japan: To have the right to complete their purchase, car buyers must provide proof that they have a parking space that is not on the road. For Clements, the show is a testament to how Japan provides children “right to the city”.

Japanese children walk a lot on weekdays – especially 7 to 12-year-olds, of which almost four out of five are on foot. Neighboring schools account for a good portion of these trips, and many of them use “pedibuses” – a parade of children, with the older ones guiding the younger ones. And school trips also allow children to discover their neighborhoods, which can facilitate other forms of travel.

“I went in there and said, ‘Is this about infrastructure or culture?'” reminiscent of E. Owen Waygood, a teacher at the Polytechnique Montréal whose doctoral dissertation at Kyoto University focuses on the travel of Japanese children and the use of space. “There is an underlying cultural value – Japanese parents believe that children should be able to move around on their own. And they introduced policies to allow that. Japanese cities are built on the concept that every neighborhood should be able to function as a village. This planning paradigm means you have shops and small businesses in residential areas, so places to go – places where these kids can go. “

Waygood’s research reveals that in Japan, children are more likely to move independently in urbanized and mixed neighborhoods. This is partly because the places to be reached are close by, but also, contrary to a common stereotype about supposedly alienating and anonymous cities, because city children are more likely to meet people they know on these journeys. .

A city that liberates children also liberates their parents.

Not that Japanese parents are not afraid of the danger of strangers on the street; if crime is low there, by western standards, kidnappings occur. This is also the topic of Six-fourthe detective novel published in 2012 by Hideo Yokoyama, which had great success in Japan and abroad.

But instead of asking children not to talk to anyone, Waygood notes, they are taught to greet people they pass, which is part of the Japanese greeting culture, “aisatsu.”. Along with neighborhood events like neighborhood parties and festivals, it helps weave a close-knit social network that can help when needed, as in episode 7 of “Hajimete,” where the hardware store on the corner of the street helps Miro cross. In a study of fourteen countries, Japanese parents were most likely to agree that adults in the neighborhood should take care of other people’s children.

Relieve the mothers

Perhaps the biggest winner in this system is mom. When children need a companion, it is most of the time on her, in the US as well as in Japan. However, Japanese children aged 10 and 11, Waygood discovered, make only 15% of their weekday travel with a parent, compared to 65% for their American counterparts. A city that liberates children also liberates their parents.

Sign up for the Slate newsletterSign up for the Slate newsletter

Of course, there is a cultural difference. But it is a difference that is deeply linked to a different approach to designing cities and neighborhoods – an approach that we could easily copy if we wanted to.

Leave a Comment