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How Often Do Japanese Teenagers Live Alone?

by Justin Sevakis,

David asks:

How common is it for Japanese teens to live on their own? You see it a fair bit, in anime and manga: teens living in a single person apartment, one that's either paid for by their family or paid for by part-time jobs. Do teens in Japan do this in real life, or is this simply a way of keeping the story simple and streamlined?

No, this is actually a thing! While it's not EXTREMELY common, it's definitely not unusual for Japanese high school students to live alone, away from their family.

Going to high school in Japan has a lot in common with going to College elsewhere: getting into a good school is extremely competitive, and the school you select will usually have more to do with reputation and your interests rather than where you live. As a result, many high school students face long commutes to and from school every day. If you're in a club or an after-school activity, this can mean going home very late, and cutting into time for studying. Some students even apply to a school in a city they don't live in! Another scenario is in the case of if a parent is transferred to another city/prefecture/country, but wishes for the kid to finish out the school year where they are.

Some very nice schools have dormitories, but most don't. Since school is so important, the family will often try to make some sort of alternate living arrangement. If a relative lives nearby, the student might temporarily move in, to save on the commute time. If that's not an option, the family might rent out a tiny apartment in the neighborhood. Japanese high school kids are very independent and spend a lot of time away from home already, and parents work so much that kids are often alone in the house anyway, so on the face of it, the kid officially living alone isn't a huge adjustment.

But that said, it's not an arrangement that many parents are ENTIRELY comfortable with. Parents might insist that they come home on weekends, or otherwise check in with their kids. Boys are more often allowed to have these arrangements than girls (who parents tend to be more protective of). The rooms are usually too small to bother having people over.

I had one Japanese friend in high school who had lived alone in Tokyo for a few months before moving with his family over to the US. I marveled at the experience. "Wasn't it lonely?" I asked him, to which he shrugged. He was at school, at his club most of the time. He really only went home to sleep, he explained. I sat back and muttered that I couldn't possibly do the same.

And in America, I definitely couldn't. Japanese kids learn at a very early age that most strangers can be relied on for help. Tokyo in particular has such a dense population that, in public, it's very hard to not at least be within earshot of SOMEBODY. This great trust in common decency and general safety is the main reason why such young kids are given such tremendous latitude with their lives, for better or worse.

This can backfire. While it's pretty rare for a kid to get involved with the criminal underworld, like in Durarara!!, kids with troubled or lonely home lives can often wind up hanging around the wrong people. Or worse. Back in 2014 a 16-year-old girl who was living alone was arrested for the murder and mutilation of a classmate.

But cases like that are exceedingly rare. I couldn't find any statistics about high school kids living alone, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that it's not that uncommon among high achieving students from well-to-do families. And if that were actually causing a problem, we can probably count on Japan's ridiculous news media to sensationalize the hell out of it.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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