Surprise Netflix hit ‘Old Enough!’ proves Japanese TV is good enough for Western viewers


Japanese TV, long derided by newcomers to the country, has really hit its stride in the age of social media. An old show, repackaged for Netflix, underlines why.

“Hajimete no Otsukai” has popped up intermittently on Nippon TV since 1991, and it’s a local favorite. The premise is simple: A toddler is sent out on an errand by themselves — buying a cake, delivering something to a neighbor — and a camera crew films (and assists when needed) from close by. The parents look on, watching their child take their first wobbly steps into being a responsible person and almost always tearing up.

The show has been a hit on YouTube for years, and was inspired by a web series hosted by Singapore’s CNA. But that’s nothing compared to the Netflix bump, which brought “Friends,” “The Office” and another Japanese favorite, “Terrace House,” into the streaming diets of Generation Z. Netflix has repackaged it as “Old Enough!,” removed the between-segment banter from Japanese TV personalities and chopped its typical three-hour run time down to 10-minute-long clips that focus on just the kids, albeit with a studio audience laugh track intact.

The streaming service pushed “Old Enough!” into a much-coveted position on its “featured” slot and adoration from overseas viewers followed. In what could only be described as the 21st-century “circle of life,” adulatory tweets generated a lot of discussion online and nudged others to check the show out — after all, it’s only 10 minutes, why not? This buzz spurred articles in online publications, starting with introductory pieces that became celebrations of its mood, thoughtful meditations and interviews with parenting experts on whether letting children run errands like this was good parenting.

What the renewed success of “Old Enough!” really illustrates, however, is just how charming Japanese TV can be. Its feel-good, relaxing qualities in particular have found their niche in our digital age. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly has tension (will this young girl remember the groceries? Can she bring the juice to her mother on time?), but it’s low stakes and that’s what makes for a cozy viewing experience. On top of that, there’s an element of reaction, via the laugh track and narrator, perfect for an age in which a good portion of YouTube consists of people reacting to things.

This combination has unintentionally been a strength for Japanese TV in recent years. “Terrace House” offered a similar combination of comfortability and panel reactions, which are common on TV here and somewhat less so overseas. Less chilled-out but equally YouTube-friendly is Hitoshi Matsumoto’s “Documental” on Amazon Prime, which draws from his comedy duo Downtown’s popular no-laughing game bit on TV here and has inspired similar programs out of Australia, Canada and India among others. Those kinds of bits that pop up on Japanese variety shows are ripe for plunder when it comes to new streaming content — I have to wonder if Netflix’s new “Is It Cake?” offering took inspiration from “wacky” segments where celebrities see if real objects such as shoes or desks are actually chocolate.

Next up? Amazon has announced plans to bring back 1980s staple and internet favorite “Takeshi’s Castle,” a program that is much more intense than watching toddlers buy stationery, but still proof of Japanese TV’s rich entertainment offerings. Instead of trying to capture Japanese “cool” via shows like “Tokyo Vice,” “Kate” or “The Outsider,” overseas networks should focus on Japanese comfort content.v

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