Why Japanese Parents Let Their Kids Ride The Subway Alone

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If helicopter parenting is the problem, maybe subway parenting is the solution. For many of Japan’s millions of daily commuters, the sight of kids as young as 4 riding the rails alone isn’t a sign that they’ve missed their morning coffee but of the nation’s thriving, independent youth.

Japan relies heavily on a vast network of high-speed, inter-city, commuter and subway rail lines to transport its densely populated 127 million people (and 1,500+ mascots). Greater Tokyo boasts the world’s most extensive urban rail network, and 8 other cities have their own subway systems, all of which are renowned worldwide for their safety and efficiency. One Tokyo station actually sees 3.7 million people move through its 13 lines, 35 platforms, and 200 exits every day, with no sign of pizza-toting rodents. If you lived there, you’d probably want to start learning to navigate that system at a young age, too.

But it’s not just about getting from place to place. According to cultural anthropologist Dwayne Dixon, solo subway riding is just one way Japanese kids are indoctrinated early into “group reliance,” the idea that anyone in the community can be counted on to help others, especially in an emergency. It’s why Japanese school kids help clean and serve each other lunch, and why public spaces there are so clean — everyone takes ownership. It’s like free-range parenting, only (allegedly) productive adult members of society respect and help children navigate their way around instead of calling the cops on them.

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There are other factors at play that will likely keep this a uniquely Japanese phenomenon — low crime rate, small-scaled urban spaces, preference for public transportation over cars — but there’s some hope that it could come stateside. A show called Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand), which chronicles kids in the wild doing some task for their family, has been a Japanese TV staple for 25 years. And if there’s one thing Americans love more than just about anyone in the world, it’s reality television.

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