TOKYO — Three-year-old Yuka steps off the curb into a crosswalk that bisects a four-lane street. “Even though the light’s green,” a narrator says in a voice-over, “she still looks out for cars!”
So begins a typical scene in “Old Enough!,” a Japanese reality show that began streaming on Netflix in late March. It is new to American viewers but has been running in Japan for more than 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 sees toddlers’ 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 can be surprising for people from other countries,” said Toshiyuki Shiomi, an expert on child development and a professor emeritus at Shiraume Gakuen University in Tokyo.
Short and sweet
“Old Enough!” has been running on Nippon TV, initially as part of another show, since 1991. It was inspired by “Miki’s First Errand,” a 1977 children’s book by Yoriko Tsutsui that tells the story of a mother who sends her 5-year-old daughter out to buy milk for a younger sibling.
The edited “Old Enough!” episodes that appear on Netflix are short (around 15 minutes or less) and upbeat. They track toddlers as young as 2 as they attempt to run errands in public for the first time, with a studio audience laughing in the background. Safety spotters and camera crews hide offscreen, with mixed results; they often stumble into the frame.
As the children navigate crosswalks and busy public places full of adults, a narrator describes their incremental progress in breathless tones, like a commentator calling a baseball game in the ninth inning. And the toddlers strike up conversations with the strangers they meet along the way.
“Mom said, instead of her, I would go to the shops today,” 3-year-old Yuka tells a shopkeeper in the coastal city of Akashi as she buys udon noodles for a family meal.
“Really?” the shopkeeper replies. “Aren’t you a clever thing?”
The errands inevitably go awry. Yuka briefly forgets to buy tempura, for instance, and another 3-year-old forgets what she has been asked to do because she is too busy talking to herself. In other episodes, children drop their cargo (live fish, in one case) or refuse to leave home in the first place.
When 2-year-old Ao’s father, a sushi chef, asks him to take some soy-sauce-stained chef’s whites to a nearby laundromat, he won’t budge.
“I can’t do it,” Ao tells his father, standing outside the family home and holding the soiled linens in a plastic bag.
Eventually, Ao’s mother cajoles him into going, partly by bribing him with a snack. “It’s painful, isn’t it?” the father says to her as the boy ambles down the road alone. “It breaks my heart.”
“You’re too soft on him,” she replies.
A rite of passage
Professor Shiomi said that parents in Japan tried to instill a particular kind of self-sufficiency in their children. “In Japanese culture, independence doesn’t mean arguing with others or expressing oneself,” he said. “It means adapting yourself to the group while managing daily tasks, such as cooking, doing errands and greeting others.”
In Japanese schools, it is common for children to clean classrooms, he noted. And at home, parents give even young children pocket money for their expenses and expect them to help prepare meals and do other chores.
In a well-known example of this culture, Princess Aiko, a member of Japan’s royal family, would walk alone to elementary school in the early 2000s. (She was always under surveillance by the Imperial Household police.)
In the Tokyo area, Wagakoto, a production company, films short documentaries of toddlers running errands, for a fee that starts at about $120. Jun Niitsuma, the company’s founder, said that the service was inspired by “Old Enough!” and “Miki’s First Errand,” and that clients paid for it because they wanted a record of how independent their toddlers had become.
“It’s a rite of passage” for both children and their parents, Mr. Niitsuma said. “These errands have been a very symbolic mission for decades.”
Room for debate
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, the vice president for Japan content at Netflix.
The show does have some critics in Japan. Their main arguments seem to be that the toddlers’ errands essentially amount to coercion, or that the show could prompt parents to put their children in harm’s way.
Violent crimes are rare in Japan. Still, some academics contend that common safety metrics paint a misleading portrait of public safety. They point to recent studies by the Ministry of Justice indicating that the incidence of crime in Japan, particularly sexual crimes, tends to be higher than what residents report to local police departments.
“It’s a terrible show!” said Nobuo Komiya, a criminologist at Rissho University in Tokyo who has advised municipalities across Japan on public safety.
“This TV station has been airing this program for years, and it’s been so popular,” he added. “But Japan is full of danger in reality. This myth of safety is manufactured by the media.”
Even supporters acknowledge that “Old Enough!” was created for an older era in which different social norms governed toddlers’ behavior.
Today, there is increasing debate in Japan about whether forcing young children to do chores is good for their development, as was once widely assumed, Professor Shiomi said. And parents no longer take public safety for granted.
“I myself sent my 3- or 4-year-old for an errand to a vegetable shop,” he said. “She was able to get there but couldn’t remember the way back because she didn’t have a clear image of the route. So the shop owner brought her home.”
Hisako Ueno reported from Tokyo, and Mike Ives from Seoul.