Three decades after it first aired on Japanese TV, international audiences are discovering why Old Enough, a show that makes stars of children as young as two, has enjoyed such enduring popularity.
Described by the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage as “an absolute rollercoaster of emotions that leaves you in tatters”, the programme follows a simple, crowd-pleasing format.
Children aged between two and five are sent out alone on their first errand by their nervous parents. As the toddlers negotiate roads and public transport, camera crew disguised as passersby capture every emotional portion of their journey, from the tearful frustration of getting lost, to the elation of returning to their relieved parents, errand completed.
The tasks set in the programme reflect errands Japanese children carry out in real-life, although for every rural family that is happy to send their four-year-old to the corner shop is another in Tokyo that would shudder at the thought of exposing their offspring to the potential dangers lying in wait in busy urban streets.
In one episode, Hiroki, a two-year-old boy, navigates traffic on a 20-minute journey to the shop to buy flowers, curry and fishcakes for his mother. In another, Hinako, who is just shy of her fifth birthday, is tasked with giving a handmade hara-obi (a traditional maternity belt) to a pregnant neighbour before buying wakame (an edible seaweed) and picking onions and cabbage from the family allotment.
During an errand to the local market, three-year-old Yuka buys udon noodles and tempura, but returns with sea bream instead of the prawns requested by her mother. All is quickly forgiven.
The show’s creator, Junji Ouchi, says the show continues to draw in audiences because it centres on a treasured feature of Japanese family life.
Ouchi, who is still the programme’s executive director, said he was inspired by the “widely accepted” practice among Japanese parents of asking their children to run errands alone.
“I thought, what if we film a child when they’re sent on their very first errand, without them being aware of what we’re doing?” he says. “Perhaps we might find something in the footage that’s worthy of television.
“Family situations have changed drastically over the 30-plus years since we started this, yet in Japan, the tradition of sending children on errands remains. Our hope is to document that tradition before it gradually disappears.”
And what viewers don’t see are the errands that don’t work out, although Ouchi says he prefers not to describe them as failures. “We started conducting simulations and learned that for every 10 errands we shoot, about one will be television material. To this day, we just focus on recording those first errand moments and one out of every six to 10 gets aired.”
The Nippon TV series, a staple of Japanese television since it first aired as Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand) in 1991, has acquired a cast of thousands of families.
Old Enough’s success in Japan, where it still attracts huge audiences, is proof that the warning to never work with children or animals may only be half right.
While the format has been left untouched for 30 years, each series captures subtle changes in Japanese society and family dynamics. Old Enough first appeared as Japan’s asset-inflated “bubble economy” was about to make way for decades of stagnation, and just as the country started to grapple with rural depopulation and the erosion of the traditional family unit, with several generations living under the same roof.
“By filming the children on their first errands, we are documenting an aspect of contemporary Japan at any given point in time,” Ouchi says. “That is a major theme of the show, and we believe it is one of the reasons that throughout its long history, it has won the support of viewers across all generations.
The children are the undisputed stars of the show, thanks both to their successes and their capacity for the unpredictable – a wrong turn, an impromptu conversation with a “stranger” or an overly ponderous visit to the shops. “Even children we expect to come home quickly start doing something else that we find astonishing,” Ouchi says. “Sometimes their errand ends up taking quite a long time.
“We’ve been doing this for decades, but there hasn’t been one errand that looked the same as any of the others. Perhaps that’s how we’ve managed to keep making the show for so long without viewers growing weary of it.”
The international success of Old Enough has inevitably generated a debate over whether its premise would work in other countries, particularly in the west, where the world beyond the front door can seem fraught with danger. The third series of the Singapore-based version will air on Netflix later this year, while Nippon TV says it is considering “many offers” to make adaptations in other countries.
Some social media users have questioned the ethics of sending toddlers out into the unknown – albeit tracked by camera crews and staff along the way.
But the show’s producer, Naoko Yano, says the families are willing participants in a documentary, not contestants in an exploitative TV reality show. “We select families that are planning to ask their child to run their first errand anyway, regardless of whether they will get filmed or not,” she says. “We try to find families who will allow us to record their stories.
“It is the families that decide what errand they want their child to run – we don’t tell them what to do. We actually share stories of failures that happened throughout the years and offer advice on how to get their child to feel motivated about their task.”
The producers’ relationship with the families continues long after their appearance, mainly via new year’s greetings cards and letters. Some write to share family milestones – when their child starts a new school or gets married.
One viewer who had appeared on the show as a child even contacted the network to film their own child running an errand.
Ouchi believes the benign version of tough love dispensed on Old Enough gives children too young to tie their shoelaces an opportunity to exhibit astonishing levels of autonomy and enterprise.
“All we really want is for the child to have an amazing day full of memories they will cherish for the rest of their lives,” he says. “Sometimes adults have to play the bad guy to encourage a child to become independent. So, when grownups help a child out of kindness, could it be because they don’t see them as equals? We try to make sure the children don’t feel like they’re still being treated like babies.”