Three small children walked on the streets ahead of us, heading to school, waiting for the public buses and subways. Clad in distinctive yellow caps and colorful backpacks, still swaying slightly on undeveloped legs as they walked, they were carefree and unsuspecting…highly prone to tragic accidents, and the perfect targets for child abductors. Had any parents in my hometown given their child this level of independence, child services would have been knocking at their door in a second. My biggest surprise in Kyoto was really my own realization at my level of distrust of strangers and neighbors. In the US, it seemed natural to walk my sisters to and from school each day, to buy their tickets at the train station or bus stop if I needed to. They still don’t know how to use public transportation, and neither of my parents have ever trusted them to ride a train alone.
Yet in Japan, these schoolchildren are not as vulnerable as they appear at first sight. Nearly every school requires that their students wear uniforms, distinguishing them from other schools in the area. From elementary to high school, any student caught out of school or committing some small crime can be identified and referred to school officials even before their parents are notified. It is also understood that, should anyone – civilian or public official – see a child out of place, they would see to it that they are taken to safety.
I guess it isn’t particularly strange to see children with greater independence in a country with a strong communal culture. The children in yellow hats and tiny uniforms are not only their parents’ responsibility, but that of the community as a whole, affording them a greater level of security as they make their way through city streets and subways to school; given such a safe social environment, children are free to learn to navigate their world at a younger age.