Japanese TV show "Old Enough!" Toddlers go shopping

TOKYO — Three-year-old Yuka steps off the sidewalk toward a crosswalk that bisects a four-lane street. “Even if the light is green,” a ...

TOKYO — Three-year-old Yuka steps off the sidewalk toward a crosswalk that bisects a four-lane street. “Even if the light is green,” a narrator says in voiceover, “she’s still watching out for cars!”

So begins a typical scene in “Old Enough!”, a Japanese reality show that began streaming on Netflix in late March. It’s new to American viewers but has been on the air in Japan for over three decades.

The show’s popularity in Japan is a reflection of the country’s high level of public safety, as well as a parenting culture that views toddler independence as a key marker of their development.

“It’s a typical way of raising children in Japan and symbolic of our cultural approach, which may surprise people from other countries,” said Toshiyuki Shiomi, child development expert and professor emeritus at the Shiraume Gakuen University in Tokyo.

“Old enough!” has been broadcast on Nippon TV, initially as part of another show, since 1991. It was inspired by “Miki’s first racea 1977 children’s book by Yoriko Tsutsui that tells the story of a mother who sends her 5-year-old daughter to buy milk for a younger brother.

The “Old Enough!” the episodes that appear on Netflix are short (about 15 minutes or less) and upbeat. They follow toddlers as young as 2 as they attempt to race in public for the first time, with a laughing studio audience in the background. Security observers and camera crews hide off-camera, with mixed results; they often stumble into the frame.

As the children navigate crosswalks and busy public places filled with adults, a narrator describes their gradual progress in breathless tones, like a commentator calling a baseball game in the ninth inning. And toddlers strike up conversations with strangers they meet along the way.

“Mom said that instead of her, I will go shopping today,” Yuka, 3, tells a shopkeeper in the coastal town of Akashi as she buys udon noodles for a meal family.

“Really?” responds the trader. “Aren’t you a smart thing?”

Races inevitably go wrong. Yuka briefly forgets to buy tempura, for example, and another 3-year-old forgets what she was asked to do because she’s too busy talking to herself. In other episodes, the kids drop their cargo (live fish, in one case) or refuse to leave the house in the first place.

When 2-year-old Ao’s father, a sushi chef, asks him to bring soy sauce-stained chef’s whites to a nearby laundromat, he doesn’t budge.

“I can’t do it,” Ao tells his father, standing outside the family home and holding the dirty laundry in a plastic bag.

Eventually, Ao’s mother persuades him to go, in part by bribing him with a snack. “It’s painful, isn’t it?” the father told him as the boy walked alone down the road. “It breaks my heart.”

“You’re too soft on him,” she replies.

Professor Shiomi said parents in Japan try to instill a particular kind of self-sufficiency in their children. “In Japanese culture, independence doesn’t mean arguing with others or speaking out,” he said. “That means adjusting to the group while managing day-to-day tasks, like cooking, running errands and greeting others.”

In Japanese schools, it is common for children to clean classrooms, he noted. And at home, parents even give young children pocket money for expenses and expect them to help with meal preparation and other chores.

In a well-known example of this culture, Princess Aikoa member of Japan’s royal family, went to elementary school alone in the early 2000s. (She was still under surveillance by the Imperial Household Police.)

In the Tokyo area, Wagakoto, a production company, films short documentaries toddlers running errands, for a fee that starts at around $120. Jun Niitsuma, the company’s founder, said the service was inspired by “Old Enough!” and “Miki’s First Errand”, and that customers paid for it because they wanted to know how independent their toddlers had become.

“It’s a rite of passage” for children and their parents, Mr. Niitsuma said. “These races have been a very symbolic mission for decades.”

Before Netflix acquired “Old Enough!”, it had been adapted for audiences in Britain, China, Italy, Singapore and Vietnam.

“‘Old enough!’ is a reminder that unique storytelling can break down cultural and language barriers and connect entertainment fans globally,” said Kaata Sakamoto, Vice President of Japanese Content at Netflix.

The show has reviews in Japan. Their main arguments seem to be that the toddler races are essentially coercion, or that the show might encourage parents to put their children in harm’s way.

Violent crimes are rare in Japan. Yet some academics argue that common security metrics paint a misleading picture of public safety. They point to recent Justice Department studies indicating that the incidence of crime in Japan, particularly sex crimes, tends to be higher than what residents report to local police departments.

“It’s a terrible sight!” said Nobuo Komiya, a criminologist at Rissho University in Tokyo who has advised municipalities across Japan on public safety.

“This TV channel has been showing this program for years and it is so popular,” he added. “But Japan is full of danger in reality. This myth of security is fabricated by the media.

Even fans recognize that “Old Enough!” was created for an older time when different social norms governed the behavior of toddlers.

Today there is a growing debate in Japan about whether forcing young children to do chores is good for their development, as was once assumed, Prof Shiomi said. And parents no longer take public safety for granted.

“I myself sent my 3 or 4 year old for an errand at a vegetable store,” he said. “She was able to get there but couldn’t remember the way back because she didn’t have a clear picture of the route. So the store owner took her home.

Hisako Ueno reported from Tokyo, and Mike Ives from Seoul.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Japanese TV show "Old Enough!" Toddlers go shopping
Japanese TV show "Old Enough!" Toddlers go shopping
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