Free-Range in Japan (And Worrying About Coming Back!)

Hi Readers!  One of the things I do in my book (remember that?) is show that what we think of as a “normal” amount of child oversight is actually not the norm around the world. Here’s a mom who is enjoying that gap! — Lenore

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m living in Okinawa, Japan now, while my husband serves a three year tour on a military base here.  We were fortunate to get a nearly American-sized house off-base with a yard, albeit a small one, so as to immerse ourselves in the culture.

When we arrived in 2008 our kids were 3, 5, and 7 years old.  I was nervous to even let them go out in the yard without me.  Rightfully so, I think, as they were still young and without any Free-Range experience, just as I was.

But after a few months, I let them play alone in the yard with the gate closed, as long as the house windows were open.  Then, a little later, they were allowed to ride their bikes and scooters in the street, but only to the second light pole, and only if the house windows were open — and so on.  It went on that way for the last two and a half years, with me adding little freedoms here and there until I I could trust them enough to, 1:  get along with each other, and 2:  find their way back home.

Now they are 6, 8, and 10!  They have friends in the neighborhood and all the mamas know them.  They speak enough Japanese to make new friends and to get help if they need it.  It has sort of snowballed in recent months, in that this week I gave them the house number of one of their friends who always comes over here. Then I sent them out to find her and go play. They came back two hours later.

It dawned on me why the Japanese mamas seem so calm and put together: They don’t have children under their feet in the house all afternoon, arguing over toys and video games.  Their kids are outdoors playing! Japanese families know how to do Free-Range!  It’s expected that kids play outdoors without their mama, and we have seen them starting as young as 2 or 3 years old, usually playing with older siblings.  There is a large park in our neighborhood which is almost always full with kids and not a mama in sight.  The whole island is pedestrian-friendly, and many Japanese don’t own cars.  The pedestrian traffic is high and so drivers are extra careful.  Kids who want to cross the street need only stand at the curb and raise their arm in the air. Traffic stops.  Really.

This week has been full of Free-Range moments. My middle child is upset with me this morning because I have neglected to restock the fridge with milk.  He’s 8 years old and he must have milk for his cereal.  So he has taken all the spare change he could find and gone to the small grocery store about three blocks over.  He’ll have to wait for the stoplight to cross the last street.  He knows where to find the milk, how to ask for help, and how to use the currency.  The first time he went was about a year ago with his scooter, and he turned right back around and came home when he couldn’t figure out where to park it.  The next time he went with his little sister and they walked, so no parking issues.  The funny thing is,  it is his older brother who watches the clock when he’s gone and waits for them at the front door!

Little Man returned yammering on about a new route he found, and I swear he grows an inch every time.

Yesterday, his little sister came to me crying (literally) because someone (my oldest son) told her that in America it’s against the law to ride your bike outside without someone watching you.  I don’t know if he was trying to tease her, or if that’s really his impression of life back there.

We actually just got our orders to move back to Virginia.  I have been trying to imagine what it will be like for our kids to return to a place where we will have to argue for our right to be Free-Range.  Our friends who live on-base out here don’t seem to have the same freedom to let their kids roam outdoors.

A few years ago, I saw a document that had been published on base, outlining at what age and how long kids are allowed to be left without supervision.  On the one hand, the guidelines are helpful, but they are also limiting.  It’s purported to be safer on-base than off in most stateside military towns. But here in Japan, I feel safer off-base!  Safer from well meaning authorities and one-size-fits-all guidelines! — Jackie Lewis

Just a cool old photo of kids in Japan. Couldn't resist.

37 Responses

  1. what an interesting take on children and other cultures. thanks!

  2. Here in Italy our habits with children are very similar to the japanese ones, I must say.
    Nobody would ever question your decision to let your kid play unsupervised, unless he’s in real danger. We ride bikes since primary school, we can go to the shops for our mum and it’s just normal, nobody complains.
    In my town the municipal services have painted footprints on the sidewalks in the surroundings of the primary schools, so that children that live nearby can go to school alone following the safest route.
    The only restriction we experience is imposed by street traffic, because in most big cities the city plan is designed for cars, and not for pedestrians.

  3. I work at a US military installation in a small city in Germany and live off base. My son (age 11) attends a local German schoool. He and his friends are very free-range. Germans teach their kids to be independent at an early age. Kids walk to school and friends’ houses by themselves starting at an early age. They learn where and when they should cross busy streets.

    Like the kids in Okinawa, my son has also gone to various stores in town by himself. He knows that most adults that he encounters are “good strangers” who can help him (e.g. a salesperson in a store).

    My son also stays home alone for a few hours once in a while. I work full-time and my husband normally works from home. But sometimes he must go to the home office, 2.5 hours away, for meetings. My son comes home from school, calls me to check in, then proceeds to make his lunch and do his homework. If he wants to go to a friend’s house, he lets me know. So what if my son opts to make toast with peanut butter or a bowl of cereal for lunch? At least he’s able to make something for himself.

    Moms in Germany sound a lot like the Japanese ones. They send the kids out to play and tell them to come home in time for dinner. Kids are allowed to go to the local pool or ski area with at least one buddy and no adult supervision starting at around age 10. They know what to do if they need assistance with something. Parents here teach their kids that most adults are good and willing to help a child in need. Adults here aren’t viewed as potential child molesters or kidnappers.

  4. I let my 10 year old, and his buddies, ride the metro alone in Singapore (we lived there for a year)

    Is this limiting the kids, this fear of the unreal an American phenomenon? What are people’s thoughts, is this just an American issue?

  5. The way things ought to be in the parenting realm.

    Yes, kids do belong outside in stretches. Parents need it for their sanity. Kids need it for the adventure of life & learning.

    I beseech this person to really soak in what you’ve learned there & practice it in VA, no matter the peer pressure to helicopter. You’ve learned a better way, no need to give it up if the law lets you (and it probably does), ESPECIALLY the playing outdoors alone part. Be an example to the others on what parenting should be like. Don’t let them influence you with the usual “you’re not in Japan” lines of “logic.” (No offense meant, but here in Texas people are bad about that, as if somehow geography overrides logic & reasoning.)

  6. @Larry – I’m not sure how widespread an issue this is in the UK, as my daughter is only just 3. I do see a ridiculous number of cars picking kids up at school though, and the odd idiotic story in the media about parents who can’t possibly be caring for their kids properly if they know how to cross a road *shock!horror*

    I can tell you that I have no intention of stopping my child from going to the park, walking/cycling home from school or to friends’ houses etc once she felt confident enough to do so though. I had a free range childhood, and I want her to as well. We’re emigrating to NZ soon, where I have high hopes of finding a whole community that agrees with us🙂

  7. There will be a cultural readjustment period for you. I found this when we moved back from Germany early this summer. I am trying hard to resist falling back into a number of American bad habits and trying to remember how independent the German kids were for when my daughter is old enough for me to give her some free range land to roam. Good luck with your move and congratulations on fitting in so well with the Japanese culture!

  8. I guess some cultures are more advanced than others. I hope those kids and their parents find a way to continue to live Free-range. It’s so ironic how America, in the eyes of the rest of the world, is considered “the land of the free”. And how even now, American’s stand by that claim. Yet proof is in the pudding, most people live a paranoid, fearful life. Be it for terrorism, mad cow, flu vaccines, your own neighbors, or riding bicycles to school. Freedom is a sad thing to waste. Especially when the young don’t get to experience it.

  9. We feel almost palpable oppression after returning to the US after two weeks in Poland or any European city, where we visit from time to time.

    While there, my kids (11, 14, and 17 at the moment) walk many blocks to the local market alone or in pairs, and make friends with local kids who walk around town in the evenings sans parents, to get some ice-cream or something.

    When we get back to the US it’s almost like a physical slap in the face to see the frantic woman in the Wal-mart whose child has stepped more than six feet away from her and “disappeared” behind a clothing rack for 30 seconds, as she chastises the child with, “I told you NEVER to wander off! Someone will TAKE YOU!”

    Having lived even for short periods among people who have not been brainwashed with that nonsense, it truly boggles the mind to see the ridiculous paranoia that is considered normal here. It’s so sad — like seeing grownups who are terrified of the boogy-man when there isn’t one. It’s just so terribly wrong.

    How can we cure them?

  10. With both a father and husband that were career Air Force, I’ve seen the military standards from both the child and parent sides. The rules were: no child under 10 left home alone, and no child under 12 can babysit, including their own siblings. I believe, but am not sure, there is also a requirement for age of children outside alone. Considering that life on base IS safer due to the limited access (no random strangers), and neighborhoods with 15mph speed limits strictly enforced, I have always felt these to be way too strict. I also believe they also lead to an abrupt transition for the child; some parents, instead of a gradual loosening of the reins, go the route of “now you’re old enough, we’ll be gone for hours”.

    However a base IS a highly regulated environment, base housing is usually very close quarters, and issues with neighbors “telling on” each other due to petty disputes are way too common. I’d MUCH rather have clear guidelines than deal with my neighbor’s opinions of what’s appropriate.

    I also spent time on Okinawa as a teen, and I still remember those little kids sticking up a hand and dashing across the street, with no adults in attendance. Even at that age I was entranced by the freedom those kids had.

  11. How can we cure them?

    Sometimes, I’ll admit, I’ve been tempted to take the children into the realm of the sorta sane but I’m not sure that’s actually a societal cure😛

  12. Edit: BTW, because I know we do sometimes get the trolls – I’m being facetious. I’ve never actually contemplated kidnapping somebody’s child because they’re too attentive. Once because somebody really was too neglectful (letting your kid wander all around the SI Ferry in such a way that they legitimately nearly fall out a window into the water? NOT GOOD) and once because somebody really was too mean (telling your preschooler to fucking shut up when I, sitting behind them, can’t even HEAR them? Nice, Mom!), but even then I thought the more appropriate course was, in order, to a. see if I could find the mom and the boat cops at the same time and make a formal report (I couldn’t, unfortunately) and b. ignore it but keep an ear out in case it escalated to violence (it didn’t, and it probably was just a bad day anyway).

  13. That sounds refreshingly awesome. *sigh*

  14. Thanks for sharing Uly. I like that article.

  15. For what it is worth, in these terms, the UK is somewhere between the US and Japan – probably closer to the former than the latter. Most children don’t enjoy the freedoms that their parents had 30 or so years ago.

    There certainly is more and faster traffic on the roads, but noticeably less during school holidays, and more fear that the worst might happen (a greater appreciation of what the worst might be, coupled with an unrealistic expectation of how likely it is).

    Is there less press fear-mongering in Italy and Japan?

  16. “For what it is worth, in these terms, the UK is somewhere between the US and Japan – probably closer to the former than the latter. Most children don’t enjoy the freedoms that their parents had 30 or so years ago.”

    Wow, not according to the English people I know. Some of them are positively paranoid!

    We live in Germany now with the military. My daughter’s spent about 75% of her life outside the US. I find it depressing to hear the Americans gossip about so-and-so who let her FOURTH GRADER walk to school alone, while nearly every German family lets their first grader do so.

    I hope we don’t have to return to the States.

  17. we also just moved back to the states from Japan. We were on the main island only about an hour from tokyo. The 6 year olds ride public transportation to and from school (train and or bus) since schools in Japan dont have bus service. We are desperate to go back so that our son can have some of that freedom. Not that we cant give it to him here, but it just seems easier there.
    On a random side note, I have always thought this summed up the attitude difference between the states and Japan. They have vending machines for everything there, including alcohol. They close at a certain time of night but are on a street corner or in front of a store. When someone asked well how do you keep underage kids from buying it since they arent monitored the Japanese lady in charge of our “culture shock” class said, the kids are monitored by thier parents not the vending machine. Wow, crazy concept that personal responsibility is personal and not governmental huh?

  18. @Uly interesting read, though it would help if the teens had included their age.

    I found it particulary interesting that in cases where one parent is overprotective and the other’s free-range, it’s mostly the fathers who are more relaxed.

  19. Funny you should mention that Peter, my father was usually the one more apprehensive about letting us off on our own in the beginning. My mom would always be the reasoning voice. But despite his apprehensions, he always went along with my mother. After about a couple of years, he finally figured out and that we were smart enough to figure things out on our own. That we always came home. Even playing sports my dad would always be “what if you get hurt?”, my mom would reply “what if they don’t?”, then my dad would take us to the sporting goods store and buy us equipment. And not just any equipment, he made sure that we got good quality stuff. Once he got into it, he was committed. lol

  20. I think if you can, everyone should be made to live somewhere else!! (i havent – but want to!!) but because I live in a high inner city expat area, I have many friends from all different nations – this helps in learning what is acceptable, getting different view points. I have asian friend, canadian, american, sri lankan etc.

    And to the person asking if its just america.. nah.. I say Australia is pretty much the same. It might be urban planning, but as Australia is large, but low population most of us drive everywhere. Housing estates dont have local shops or schools, so most kids get driven around.

    my kids dont walk alone to school, but I try to ride bikes or walk with them when I’m not on my way somewhere else. But i would say only about 20 families or kids walk to and from school.

  21. @Peter: I think that there is a lot of pressure on moms to be supermoms, do everything and sacrifice everything for their kids, and so on. They get a lot more flak for taking time away from their kids to do what they want to do (which is supposed to be abandoned at the moment of conception) and are considered responsible for a lot more of the child’s upbringing (especially in our current all-men-are-evil mindset). So fathers can *afford* to be relaxed more because they aren’t “supposed” to be the hovering parent, and they aren’t as likely to be scolded or labeled “America’s Worst Dad.” I think you’d have to do something actually negligent or criminal to get that label, whereas apparently moms only have to let their kids ride the subway.

  22. Perhaps Lenore will pass this along

    (or perhaps Ms/ Lewis is lurking?)

    Dear Jackie Lewis,

    Welcome in Advance back to our shores. I hope your adjustment will be a success.

    You have probably thought of this, but if not I suggest that you have a crossing-the-street (and navigating parking lot) talk with the kids.

    Those of us who have kids are somewhat aware of them while driving ( though not necessarily on busy streets!). Young drivers are so self-involved that kids often do not register with them. Certainly American driving habits/customs are nothing like your kids have experienced in Okinawa.

    My own counsel has been that my kids are responsible for their own safety around moving vehicles – they must notice where the driver is looking – and act accordingly.

    When in doubt – yield.

  23. Yay, Jackie!

  24. All of what you wrote are the reasons I want to come back here for my husband’s second-to-last tour. We don’t have kids yet and our oldest should be about 6-8 by then, hopefully. I want by children to have the experience of doing things on their own in an environment without fear. I also want them to have all the scouting opportunities here that aren’t available stateside.

  25. Does anyone know any statistics regarding crimes against children in different countries around the world?

  26. Hey, welcome back to Virginia. I’ve been living here since I left the Navy in 2000. Actually, the Free Range problem isn’t so bad here. Not exactly why it isn’t so bad, but you should be fine as is. A few states are like that, like up in Vermont when I visit I routinely see kids out on their bikes, riding the bus by themselves, even using public transit to get back and forth to school on their own.

    Just be sure to check the schools they’re going to, but really, Virginia isn’t so bad Free-Range wise.

  27. I see from trb’s comment that Japan is still very free-range. A friend recently told me how he lived in Japan from the ages of 5 to 6 (about 40 years ago) and his daily routine included taking a bus, a train and then another bus to get to school. He did this every day, by himself.

  28. A few of the things I love about raising a child in Germany:

    The kindergartens (i.e., preschools – kindergarten here is three years long, for children from 3 y.o. till they enter school) make getting out every day and playing in the fresh air a priority. As the saying goes, there’s no wrong weather, just wrong clothes. The children all have a set of boots and rainproof clothing that are left at the Kindergarten to be used in case of inclement weather. And used they are!

    Kindergartens are still dedicated to the preschool experience remaining just that — PRE school and not an intro to the academic experience. (Although – sigh – some policy wags are pushing to change this. I tell ya, being an American here, knowing where this all leads, makes one feel like a Cassandra).

    Children in Kindergarten are allowed — encouraged! — to learn “adult world”, aka “real world” things, like how to use a knife to cut food and how to light a candle. (They always seem to be using candles for one reason or another, the most obvious being birthdays). And at this point I would be remiss not to add that I when I lived next door to a Kindergarten, I witnessed the teachers holding out lit cigarette lighters so the kids could light their firecrackers. Yes, little children were lighting and throwing those pop firecracker things. Needless to say, on New Year’s Eve with their families, the kids are setting off even bigger ammo.

    Children are expected to be getting themselves to school without a parent by second grade, at the latest. Do some people still pick their children up beyond that age for whatever reason? Of course. But – get this – the gossip is actually the opposite of that in the US! Actually overheard: “Even though the child was in second grade, so-and-so still picked the kid up every day”. Hehe! I had to have a little internal giggle when I heard that one.

    Toward the end of the last year of kindergarten, children go on overnight trips! Yep. With the teachers and the other kids and without the parents. And in primary school as well, children go on an overnight class trip at least once during their time at primary school — in some schools the kids even go every year! In the kindergartens, they do a “trial-run” with the children by having them stay overnight in the kindergarten itself first. Especially for the kindergarten kids, the idea behind these overnight stays sans parent is a sort of “rite of passage”. The child is becoming a school kid, which, especially from the child’s point of view, is an upgrade from “little” kid. Many a parent has shared the tale of the insecure “baby” who left to go on the overnight trip, only to return two days later as a self-assured — ready to take on the whole school thing — child. They swear by it! Enabling independence is celebrated here. Hooray!

    My child’s primary school is not locked during school hours. The building super’s glass-fronted office is right next to the front door, so usually he can see who goes in and out, but he’s not there all the time, nor is he expected to be. Parents may be coming and going at any time of the day. Parents do volunteer work at the school. The school’s lending library is completely parent run, and some parents lead extra-curricular activities, and . . . who knows what else? — Parents are as much a part of a primary school’s fabric as the children, teachers, and school employees, don’t you think? And it DOES create the feeling of community. The atmosphere is wonderful. And nothing fancy or particularly special is going on. Just good old fashioned normality. But after reading about how US parents are increasingly having to be vetted to enter their child’s school, I’m grateful for nothing special.

    Anyway, that’s the short list.

  29. @ Tuppence– you’ve made me even more determined to get back to Europe by the time our kids are school-age. I loved our time there & wish we had been there long enough to take advantage of the kindergartens as so many of our friends did.

  30. @Kacey — Go for it!

  31. Things are pretty free-range here in Canada. However, I read a disturbing Letter to the Editor in my daily paper a few weeks ago. I live in a community of about 155 000 people whom are spread out over quite a vast area. It’s a city where one can see many kids of various ages meandering about without a parent in sight. To get back to the story, this one mother was frightened for her daughter’s safety because the childenr are allowed to walk alone from a portable to the school in order to use the bathroom. Oh, and there are no cameras to monitor them. Oooohhhh, the travesty of it all!!

    Anyways, hopefully she’s only a bad apple in the basket, otherwise we’re in real trouble if this phenomenon crosses the 49th.

  32. I really hate to be all doom and gloom about this, but I don’t feel right not speaking up. My husband is a Marine. We were stationed in Virginia a few years ago, and are now in California. My best advice, sadly, is that, at least if you are going to live in base housing, be aware that, when you’re outside, there may very well be watching your (and your kids’) every move for some “wrong.” One friend asked her 7-8yr old daughter to walk down to the other end of our 5-house building to see if they could borrow some eggs and someone called the MPs. Another friend had been separated from his 3yr old twin daughters for 6mos, and was left alone with them for the weekend soon after returning. They woke up, couldn’t wake Daddy up, and wanted to go to the park that was within view of their house, so they went (the door was supposedly childproof-locked, he didn’t know they could open it). CPS was called. When I was about 7mos pregnant, I went to my best friend’s house (across the street) because she was taking new medication and wasn’t answering the phone. She didn’t answer the door either, so I just went in since it was unlocked. A neighbor she didn’t even know called the MPs because apparently someone was breaking into her house. Maintenance can make reports on the state of your home (I’ve had this done because someone was angry I lodged a complaint against him). It really is all ridiculous and stupid, no argument there. But nevertheless you do have to be on your toes if you want to stay out of trouble.

  33. While it’s good to hear people are thinking and realize kids can handle a little trust, it can also go too far. When I taught English as a second language in South Korea, in some neighborhoods near my home I saw under 10s playing outside as late as 1 AM. I found that shocking, but I also found it was common.

    I have not, however, seen the same excess in other countries I have lived in or visited (Taiwan, Philippines, Japan). The kids there are “free range” as the writer speaks.

  34. I know this is weeks late, I’m behind in my reading and was just catching up.

    To Jackie: We live in VA- the Fredericksburg area, actually. I don’t know where you’re stationed, but there have to be some other Free-Rangers out there for you to meet!😉

  35. This is a very late comment… but it’s worth noting that the Japanese Railway system has special pricing option for “Children under 6, traveling alone”. Dwell on that for a moment.

  36. Hi! Just checking the comment function here.

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