Japan has lots of young people who are out of work or not even in the hunt for a job. The government estimates that 850,000 people, from teens through to their 30s, fall into the category of NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Then there are the “freeters,” youths who only work odd jobs — out of choice or due to the shortage of full-time employment.

But Kidzania Tokyo might be able to change that. At this indoor amusement park, which recently opened at upscale shopping mall LaLaport Toyosu in eastern Tokyo, every visitor — from age 2 to 12 — is expected to work. Well, sort of work.

During a visit to this amusement park/career role-playing center on its Oct. 5 grand opening day, four school-age boys, all in red uniforms, tried their hand at working as gas station attendants, learning how to lead a customer’s car into the station, fill gas and wipe car windows. But really, they looked more interested in test-driving the shiny red, childsize replica convertible car in front of them.

The adult attendant shrieked, trying to keep the boys’ attention: “We consider it our most important job to smile and greet the customers cheerfully! Do you understand? OK, repeat after me! ‘Irasshaimase (Welcome)! Arigato gozaimashita (Thank you very much)!’ One more time! Irasshaima. . . Wait! Not so fast! We haven’t finished yet!”

Soon a couple of kids wearing photographers’ jackets showed up on the sidewalk, flashing bulky single-lens cameras. “I wonder what kind of angles would be good . . .” one girl murmured while aiming her camera at the restless gas station trainees. Behind them were a group of children firefighters in silver-and-orange uniforms, jogging and chanting, “One, two! One, two!”

The 6,000-sq.-meter facility was in a chaotic frenzy as more than 1,000 kids, including guests from neighboring schools and kindergartens, raced to try out their favorite jobs at some 50 pavilions made to look exactly like actual facilities in town, though two thirds of their original size. A police station, a cooking studio, a hospital, a beauty parlor and a pizza shop are among the park’s attractions.

With the lights always set down low, so that kids can experience “a fun night out,” this kingdom of “edutainment,” as the park’s operators have dubbed it, also teaches children how to be a radio DJ, walk the runway as a fashion model, operate a crane at a construction site — and even perform an endoscopic surgery to remove a gallbladder from a patient. Every time they simulate these jobs, they get eight “kidzos,” a currency that they can use to buy goods and services, or they can save in bank accounts, which yield a 10 percent interest rate per year.

The concept of Kidzania Tokyo was imported from Mexico, where a similar facility has attracted 800,000 visitors per year since it opened in 1999 — contradicting typical trends in the theme park industry, which usually sees a park’s number of visitors sharply fall in its second year, officials said. Kidzania Tokyo is the third Kidzania in the world and the first outside Mexico. Others are being built in Spain, Dubai and Jakarta.

Einosuke Sumitani, Kids City Japan President and CEO, said he wants the theme park to be a place where children re-discover the sense of “community” that he thinks Japan has lost.

“When I look back on my childhood, children were given various roles in their families, such as cleaning the house and helping with dinners,” said the seasoned businessman, who has also introduced Tony Roma’s and Hard Rock Cafe to Japan. “Children were also closely aligned with their community, where there was a vegetable vendor and a fish store, and they grew up being scolded and encouraged by people in the community. Such a sense of community is disappearing in present-day Japan. I think Kidzania can be a place where they can get it back — while having fun.”

Many children said they were thrilled by the act of role-playing, if not for the jobs themselves. Girls looked dead serious as they cradled plastic baby dolls at the hospital neonatal room pavilion.

“I loved the part about picking my favorite destinations in Mexico on PCs,” said Sachiyo Ogino, 10, who created a personalized brochure at the travel agency pavilion.

Parents likewise seemed to enjoy the park’s features, though in almost all pavilions they could only watch their kids from outside the glass windows, since adults are not allowed to participate.

“It offers a kind of fun that is different from the one you would find at Disneyland,” said Emi Takemoto, 33, who was waiting for her 7-year-old daughter Akane to finish eating ice cream she had made herself. “I think kids learn a lot by coming here. I wish I could try these jobs myself.”

But as you immerse yourself in this paradise of “jobs,” you start to sense how very corporate the enterprise is. All pavilions bear the names of real companies, with their logos prominently featured. At some pavilions, children must listen as their supervisors chant sponsor companies’ names and list an employee’s duties. In fact, Kidzania has been written up in at least one business publication overseas as a “unique advertising media” — a perfect opportunity for corporate giants to cultivate brand loyalty among future customers.

Corporate sponsorship is not unique to Kidzania, as seen in credits given to many attractions at Disneyland and other theme parks. But at Kidzania, the level of exposure is much deeper; after all, aside from a few public facilities such as a fire station and police station, a taste of corporate life is what this park sells.

Kids City Japan spokesman Yoshihiko Nakada acknowledges sponsor companies “do expect” a degree of brand recognition from kids and their parents, adding that sponsors fork out up to 100 million yen each in their five-year contracts with the company.

But Nakada said he is not concerned about the capitalistic nature of the park, noting that all of the 30 or so schools he visited before Kidzania Tokyo’s opening said they want more job/career education opportunities for kids. “None of them were worried about the ‘corporate colors,”‘ he said.

Rather, the bigger challenge for the park at the moment is keeping pavilion attendants motivated, he said. While they don uniforms bearing various corporate logos, the attendants are hired by Kids City Japan as arubaito (part-time) workers, he said, noting that engaging kids into the activities takes a lot of skills and patience.

Indeed, at one pavilion recreating a parcel delivery service center, staff couldn’t help but vent their frustration at 2-year-old visitors who ignored repeated requests not to climb on carts and play with the phone while getting lectures on how boxes are sorted out.

“Are you doing this job or not?” one female staffer screamed at the toddlers, while their mothers leisurely waited outside. “This is not play! This is work!!!”

At the end of the day, some kids managed to learn a kernel of truth about work: It’s not always fun.

“It’s a lot more complicated than I had imagined,” Yuki Nakano, 10, said wearily after picking up a box from a fashion boutique and delivering another to people across town. He also had to chase after those raucous 2-year-olds he was “working” with. After experiencing what it’s like to deliver goods, he said he was interested in trying other jobs too. As I thanked him for his comment, and started to walk away, he asked me, “Hey, which company are you from?” with a sparkle in his eyes that suggested that he had started learning something about newspaper reporting as well.


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