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Social Trust Makes Japanese Kids Independent
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Social Trust Makes Japanese Kids Independent

In Japan, small children take the subway and run errands alone, with no parent in sight. The reason has more to do with social trust than self-reliance.
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 six or seven, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight, reports citylab.com.
Parents in Japan regularly send their kids out into the world at a very young age. 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.
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.
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 what is intriguing [in Japan] is the sense of trust and cooperation that occurs, often unspoken or unsolicited.

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