What a Netflix Hit Hajimete no Otsukai (Old Enough) Really Reveals About Japanese Risk-Taking

Japanese parents crave security for their kids. If anything, the country could afford to be a little more out there.

Japan has been a little bemused to find that a long-running family-favorite TV show, known here as Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand), has suddenly achieved international fame on Netflix as Old Enough. 

The program, which features preschoolers running errands by themselves, has triggered worldwide debate about parenting standards. One article in the UK blasted the reality TV show as “bizarre,” quoting a child psychologist who described it as “exploitative and dangerous.” NPR felt compelled to warn parents not to let their offspring emulate kids on the show lest they run foul of local laws. 

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The Japanese are tickled that the heavily-scripted show, which has aired here for three decades, is seen as “dangerous.” After all, this is a country where children frequently ride trains solo to get to elementary school, squeezing in among the salarymen at rush hour. 

But it’s wrong to conclude that the Japanese are more risk-tolerant than the west’s helicopter parents. Foreigners and the Japanese take away different lessons from Old Enough. The show isn’t really about children innovating their way around tough challenges. It’s more about how to become functioning members of society — through the proverbial school of hard knocks. If anything, Old Enough — which first aired in 1991 — reflects some long-established societal precepts, which are only now beginning to change.

Take career expectations. According to a recent survey, the top choice choice parents and grandparents want for their kids and grandkids is a job in the national civil service. Number two? The local civil service. The country’s largest company, Toyota Motor Corp., was third.

Not that civil service jobs are particularly attractive. They’re tough to get and pay only a little above the national average. National broadcaster NHK reported 30% of civil servants in their 20s were doing 80 hours of overtime or more a month, a level of endurance that contributes to Japan’s cases of death by overwork. 

So why is that work so popular with parents? The answer: stability and security. They are jobs for life for those who can stick with the rigors of it. 

In Japan, people stay in their jobs for a very long time rather than risk going back into the labor market. In the US, workers are more transient: 23% have been at their jobs for less than a year, according to one survey. In Japan, that figure is 8%. Those with more than 20 years of service made up 22% of workers in Japan, and just 10% in America. That reluctance to change jobs is among the main reasons salaries have been depressed for the past three decades.

College graduates are also less willing to strike out on their own. The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has bemoaned the lack of startups in the country, pointing out that the largest group of listed companies in Japan were formed in the decade after World War II, including Sony Group Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

The same lack of adventure is evident elsewhere: Much less money is invested in higher-risk assets such as corporate equity and mutual funds than is the norm in other countries. Companies are often afraid to commit much spending to innovation, allowing foreign rivals to sneak in and take control of industries like electric vehicles. The risk-off attitude is seen too in the softly-softly post-pandemic approach to letting tourists back in, a conservative process that has broad public support but enrages the business community.  

There are some promising developments, however. Kishida is right to note the lack of startups, but the nation’s venture capital scene is growing. Funding raised by Japanese VCs is projected to be a record of nearly $7.7 billion, a figure that stood under $1 billion less than a decade ago. While still relatively rare, more young students are now likely to join or found a startup than a generation ago. 

And while sticking to one job is still the ideal, the rate of switching among people in their 40s and 50s surged in 2021 to five times the level of 2013. Increasing competition for talent is likely to propel this trend, especially if companies take advantage of the weak yen to return manufacturing to Japan. 

While parents might want their kids to become civil servants, fewer young people desire a job for life. The number who indicated they’d prefer to stay in one job fell eight percentage points in 2018 from five years earlier, according to a government survey. Just 4.4% said they’d stay in the same job even if it was tough, the second-lowest percentage of seven major countries surveyed. 

As for that list of top career destinations for the nation’s progeny? After the bureaucracy and Toyota, the most popular options were Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc. While they’re hardly the riskiest options, the same list a decade ago was dominated by airlines and train operators, with no foreign companies in the top 10 even though they typically pay more for talented workers and have superior benefits. 

The Japanese should rewatch Old Enough and learn different lessons. Yes, the show’s about the tough love that lets kids stand on their own two feet. But that strength has to lead to navigating risk, escaping drudgery and innovating to make life more rewarding. Now that the world is watching, Japan should take that to heart. 

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