The very thought of allowing one’s children to wander far from home is an anathema to most American parents (at least in urban areas). But the average Japanese doesn’t bat an eyelash at the sight of a child as young as nine riding the train or running errands, even in a sprawling megacity like Tokyo.
As The Atlantic reports, this practice is deeply rooted in Japan’s culture.
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.
It makes sense when you think about it: in a society that values community spirit and teaches everyone to be responsible to each other, one can enjoy considerable safety. Not only is it unlikely that you will be victimized, but you can count on total strangers to look after you if something goes wrong.
Even the country’s infrastructure lends itself well to self-reliance.
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.
“Public space is scaled so much better—old, human-sized spaces that also control flow and speed”, Dixon notes. In Japanese cities, people are accustomed to walking everywhere, and public transportation trumps car culture; in Tokyo, half of all trips are made on rail or bus, and a quarter on foot. Drivers are used to sharing the road and yielding to pedestrians and cyclists.
Of course, a lot of this is owed to Japan’s unique characteristics — a densely populated and homogeneous society shaped by centuries of cohesive isolation. But the overall principle — of community spirit providing a safe environment conducive to independence — remains universally applicable.
It might seem contradictory, but the surest way to optimize individual freedom is to cultivate a society that allows you to live your life without fear of predation or harm. When people look after each other, whether actively or by being responsible and law abiding citizens, they create the sort of conditions that allow even young children to go about their lives in peace.
Hyper-individualistic cultures like the United States can certainly learn a lot from the Japanese example; though too strong of a community can lead to tremendous social and psychological pressures, such as conformity, too much of the other extreme creates an unpleasant social environment. When everyone is taught to look after themselves, or to regard their fellow humans as competitors rather than potential collaborators, it paradoxically restricts our freedoms — it makes us less trusting and more guarded, and makes every social interaction or public excursion fraught with uncertainty and fear.
Simply put, strong communities allow for strong individuals. The person can only flourish to their fullest potential when the people allow them to. It might be a lot to take away from this particular Japanese example, but it certainly makes intuitive sense. What are your thoughts?