What a Netflix hit really reveals about Japanese risk-taking

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Japan was a little perplexed to discover that a family favorite TV show, known here as Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand), suddenly gained international fame on Netflix as Old Enough.

The program, which features preschoolers running errands on their own, has sparked a global debate about parenting standards. An article in the UK called the reality show “bizarre”, citing a child psychologist who described it as “exploitative and dangerous”. NPR felt compelled to warn parents not to let their offspring imitate children on the show, lest they violate local laws.

The Japanese are delighted that the heavily scripted show, which has been airing here for three decades, is considered “dangerous”. After all, this is a country where children often take the solo train to primary school, sneaking among the employees at rush hour.

But it is wrong to conclude that the Japanese are more risk-tolerant than Western helicopter parents. Foreigners and Japanese take different lessons from Old Enough. The show isn’t really about kids innovating to overcome difficult challenges. It’s more about how to become functioning members of society – through the proverbial school of hard knocks. On the contrary, Old Enough – which first aired in 1991 – reflects some long-established societal precepts, which are only now beginning to change.

Take career expectations. According to a recent survey, the number one choice parents and grandparents want for their children and grandchildren is a job in the national civil service. Number two? local public service. The nation’s largest company, Toyota Motor Corp., finished third.

Not that civil service jobs are particularly attractive. They are hard to get and pay only a little above the national average. National broadcaster NHK reported that 30% of civil servants in their 20s worked 80 or more overtime hours a month, a level of endurance that contributes to overwork death cases in Japan.

So why is this job so popular with parents? The answer: stability and security. These are lifetime jobs for those who can stick to the rigors.

In Japan, people stay in their jobs for a very long time rather than risk returning to the labor market. In the United States, workers are more transient: 23% have been in their jobs for less than a year, according to a survey. In Japan, this figure is 8%. Those with more than 20 years of service made up 22% of workers in Japan and just 10% in the United States. This reluctance to change jobs is one of the main reasons why wages have been depressed over the past three decades.

University graduates are also less willing to go it alone. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration lamented the lack of startups in the country, pointing out that the largest group of listed companies in Japan was formed in the decade after World War II, including Sony Group Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

The same lack of adventure is evident elsewhere: far less money is invested in high-risk assets such as company shares and mutual funds than is the norm in other countries. Companies are often afraid to invest big money in innovation, allowing foreign rivals to sneak in and take over industries like electric vehicles. The risk-taking attitude is also visible in the post-pandemic soft-soft approach to letting tourists return, a conservative process that has broad public support but is infuriating the business community.

There are, however, some promising developments. Kishida is right to note the lack of startups, but the national venture capital scene is growing. Funds raised by Japanese venture capital firms are expected to hit a record close to $7.7 billion, a figure that was less than $1 billion less than a decade ago. Although still relatively rare, more young students are now joining or founding a startup than a generation ago.

And while sticking to one job remains the ideal, the rate of change among people in their 40s and 50s jumped in 2021 to five times the level of 2013. Growing competition for talent is likely to propel this trend, especially if companies take advantage of the weak yen to bring manufacturing back to Japan.

While parents want their children to become civil servants, fewer young people want lifelong employment. According to a government survey, the number of those who said they would prefer to keep a job fell by eight percentage points in 2018 compared to five years earlier. Just 4.4% said they would keep the same job even if it was difficult, the second lowest percentage of the seven major countries surveyed.

As for this list of the best career destinations for the country’s offspring? After bureaucracy and Toyota, the most popular options were Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc. Although not the riskiest options, the same list a decade ago was dominated by airlines and train operators , with no foreign companies in the top 10 even. although they generally pay more for talented workers and enjoy superior benefits.

The Japanese should revisit Old Enough and learn different lessons. Yes, the show is about the tough love that lets kids fend for themselves. But that strength must lead to managing risk, escaping drudgery, and innovating to make life more rewarding. Now that the world is watching, Japan should take this to heart.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

The Japanese must invest before it’s too late: Gearoid Reidy

No lie for these students in China Covid-Zero: Shuli Ren

Netflix, inflation and the impact of reality: John Authors

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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