ONTD Political

Desperate Hunt for Day Care in Japan

3:45 pm - 02/28/2013
Published: February 26, 2013
TOKYO — Ayaka Okumura was barely pregnant when she began fretting over how she would hold on to the management job that would have been out of reach just a generation ago, when Japanese women were often relegated to dead-end “office lady” jobs pouring tea and greeting guests.

From the start, Ms. Okumura had a crucial advantage over the many American women who despair of “having it all.” The Japanese government subsidizes thousands of day care centers nationwide for families of all income levels, and it demands that caregivers pass rigorous exams in child care that usually require two years of special schooling.

But the quality of the public day care network — and a growing shortage of slots as more women entered the work force — has created its own set of seemingly intractable problems. Increasingly desperate women are forced into an annual competition for day care slots that is grueling enough to merit its own name, “hokatsu,” and is said by some to surpass the notorious, stress-filled job hunt endured by Japanese college students.

Ms. Okumura is now a weary veteran of that day care campaign.

For months, as her stomach grew larger, the mother-to-be, then 30, trudged from day care center to day care center, some public and some private, in what little time she could manage away from her job, putting her name on waiting lists that were sometimes more than 200 names long.

By the time she gave birth to her daughter, Ayane, late last year, she had toured 44 sites in Tokyo — her last scheduled visit was on her due date, but she canceled when she started getting contractions.

“I’m going to lose my mind,” she said as she walked one day from a child care center squeezed between two high-rises. “Why does finding day care have to be this difficult?”

In rapidly aging Japan, such hand-wringing is no longer limited to parents. Some government officials have begun to label the shortage of day care spots a crisis that threatens to undermine attempts to re-energize Japan’s listless economy by keeping its large pool of young, highly educated women from paychecks that could help increase domestic spending.

More worrisome, experts say, is that a lack of openings — especially at more affordable public nurseries — could convince more women that they should forgo having more than one child or lead them to have no children at all, depressing a birthrate that is already among the lowest in the world.

But with a public debt more than twice the size of its economy and a concentration of public spending on the growing ranks of elderly Japanese, it is unlikely that the problem will be fixed any time soon. A rapid succession of governments in recent years has not helped; in just five years, 13 different ministers have been responsible for dealing with the low birthrate.

At the root of the problem, women’s rights advocates say, is that working mothers now face two levels of hurdles: a new demographic trend that works against them and an old bias toward stay-at-home mothers. Like many women interviewed for this article, Ms. Okumura made most of her visits to day care centers alone because in Japan fathers generally consider finding child care to be a mother’s responsibility.

“I get asked: Is your work so important that you have to put your baby in child care? Why are you being so self-centered?” said Mariko Saito, who works for a pharmaceuticals company in Tokyo and campaigns for more day care options. “But I’m not working for myself. I’m working to support my family, just like my husband.”

When Japan set up its modern public day care system after World War II, the authorities expected it to serve people who might have nowhere else to turn, like single mothers. For a time, analysts say, that was good enough, especially as well-paid “salarymen” were able to support their families alone.

Then with the bursting of the “bubble economy” in the early 1990s, young men found it harder to secure stable, high-paying work. Wives who stepped into the breach began to push the boundaries of employment, finding jobs they were less willing to part with at the first sign of a baby bump.

But unlike many American women, young Japanese mothers had few options unless their own parents could help out. Few families feel comfortable with baby-sitting shares in a culture in which inviting strangers into the home is unusual. And with the hurdles to immigration high, foreign-born nannies are a rarity.

They turned instead to the government-subsidized child care centers, where their collective needs led to a nationwide waiting list that is now more than 25,000 places long. The government estimated the waiting lists for all types of day care would be tens of thousands of names longer, but many families have given up.

Increasingly, families try private unsubsidized day care centers, which can be twice as expensive despite sometimes offering lower standards of care. But in Japan’s cities, even private centers are oversubscribed.

Some families are so anxious to get into public day care that they upend their lives, moving to districts known to have the shortest waiting lists. Ms. Okumura’s “hokatsu” quest followed a familiar path, even if the number of centers she visited was slightly higher than the norm.

First she applied to her local government, which like many uses a point-based rating system to try to ensure everyone has an equal shot at subsidized day care. She and her husband, Masanori, received a perfect base score of 40 because they both have full-time jobs. Single-parent households earn extra points as do those with special-needs children, but the Okumuras at least lost no points. Having grandparents nearby who could care for Ayane would have been a handicap.

Still, officials in Shinagawa, the Okumuras’ city ward on Tokyo’s waterfront, told them their chances were slim.

So began Ms. Okumura’s slog through the city’s private day care centers, past endless rows of cubicles for tiny shoes (removed at the door), piles of napping futons and gaggles of children.

If she was turned down for public day care, her plan was to return to these nurseries, joining a yearly stampede of anxious mothers who look for private spots to open up once the lucky winners of subsidized slots drop from the competition.

Slowly, she began to harbor a new worry; because private day care centers begin their “school year” in April, coinciding with the announcements of public admissions, she faced a painful choice. Even if her family got lucky enough to be accepted at a nursery, Ms. Okumura would be forced to cut short her legally entitled maternity leave by eight months and leave Ayane in child care when the baby was 4 months old. If Ms. Okumura extended her leave until the following April, she worried it could jeopardize her job at an accounting firm.

She chided herself for not having timed her pregnancy to give birth soon after April to get a high spot on waiting lists — a strategy recommended on chat sites filled with earnest posts on strategies to get into day care.

Shinzo Abe, the newly appointed prime minister, has promised to create new day care centers, but it is unclear how much he can accomplish given Japan’s growing and politically active elderly population. Almost 70 percent of Japan’s social welfare spending is directed at people 65 or older, while less than 4 percent supports children and families, according to a government-affiliated research group.

“It’s become a vicious cycle,” said Hiroki Komazaki, the founder of several nurseries. “We don’t invest in future generations, inevitably bringing on an aging society.”

Those priorities were apparent at a recent City Council meeting in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward, which has one of the country’s longest child care waiting lists. Only after a drawn-out discussion on the distribution of adult diapers did talk turn to day care. Then no action was taken, disappointing mothers in the audience.

In the end, an exhausted Ms. Okumura got lucky, recently winning the offer of a coveted public day care spot. But she cannot yet bring herself to accept it.

“I wish I could stay with my daughter for longer,” she said. “I’m filled with so much worry, and completely spent.”

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

moldypotatochip 28th-Feb-2013 08:55 am (UTC)
I've lived and worked in Japan for five years. That being said, I don't have kids, so I've never had to deal with this firsthand.

I work at public schools, though, and when a teacher gets pregnant she works up til a certain point and then she is given about two years of leave for the baby. The job at the school will be saved for her until she comes back. That seems more than generous.

As for childcare shortages, I couldn't say, but Japanese early education is usually divided into two systems. There is the youchien system which is equal to preschool and kindergarden. It is a two year school prior to first grade in elementary. This system is designed for stay-at-home moms because it starts when the children are about four years old. The second system is called hoikuen which starts much younger. The hoikuen system is for babies and toddlers and these children stay at the hoikuen until the children enter first grade. So these two systems are not overlapping but rather two different options mothers can pick based on their needs.

I would think this article is referring more to the hoikuen system which would cater towards working mothers.
katrinar 28th-Feb-2013 02:12 pm (UTC)
two years is pretty much the standard in many european countries and Japan. unfortunately, the US is far behind on maternity leave. in canada, we get a year (which really isn't enough) and have similar problems unless the family lives in quebec (government subsidized daycare for all, $7 bucks a day, more moms in the working force generated 5 billion dollars over a decade).

my dear friend just came back from a stint in japan where because she was a mom when they went over, she just didn't work (though she could have). the daycare situation is tough enough but being a foreigner on top of that makes it damned near impossible.

we still live in an international society where in MANY cases (not all) women are forced not only to bear children, but take care of most chores, child rearing etc and then go back to work to support their families. it really sucks.
belleweather 28th-Feb-2013 10:23 pm (UTC)
Oh honey, please don't talk about how inadequate a year is. I would have KILLED for 6 WEEKS in my last pregnancy, not to mention the three months (unpaid) we get in the US, or a far more reasonable 6 months or a year.

In the US, there is plenty of care available, in that we're not hurting for spots, but the cost is $800-1500 per month, per kid in a middle-cost market. $800 will buy you about a full work-day of care from a private person in their home. A center or preschool with an educational curriculum and more oversight will cost more. Living on the coasts or in a big city? Cost more. I'd almost rather there were less spots available and more subsidies than to have real, quality childcare out of reach for financial reasons, if only because I'd feel less guilty.

(For what it's worth, my mister stays home with our three, because his income after taxes < daycare costs. We'll pay an enormous price for that once our kids are grown and he has to get back into the job market, but our choices were limited.)
katrinar 1st-Mar-2013 02:01 am (UTC)
You can get part-time care in most cities in Canada for around 75-100 a day and full time care isn't much different. In my city, there are zero spots anywhere, and if you are lucky enough to find a spot, it is usually at a daycare that costs around 2000 per month, or more.

My husband had to quit his job, too. Is ended up working out better because he works shift now, and we found a babysitter part time (3 half days a week) for 50 per half day. Tis is affordable now because he is making enough money that we can afford it. When I go on my next mat leave, I'm hoping to work freelance on the side, because th Canadian government only pays 400a week for most women on leave(some less, never more). I rWork for one of the many organizations that don't top that up, so yeah, we get a year off, but it is usually only for a quarter of your salary.
belleweather 1st-Mar-2013 03:15 am (UTC)
I have so many FEELINGS about childcare. We've moved out of the US for my job to a place where we can employ a nanny and even with the foreigner markup, it's still only about $450 a month... which is about 50% more than the prevailing local wage for a nanny. I've been putting off doing it though, because I feel like it's almost exploitation to have someone look after my baby while my husband goes to school (he's in an online masters program) and NOT have to like, cut corners and eat ramen and lentils in order to afford it. The idea that I can afford like, cable TV and the occasional latte AND safe, responsible, caring childcare for my kids is totally mind-blowing to me. That's pretty sad.

phililen3 28th-Feb-2013 09:31 am (UTC)
As if life wasn't hard enough for a woman...
Self-centered? That is the guy who won't help out his partner and is concerned with only himself...
hola_meg_a_cola 28th-Feb-2013 03:15 pm (UTC)
That's a very common mentality in Japan. Women are expected to be the backbone of the family in this country. Recently, more moms are working and dads are reluctantly giving in because there is no way they can pay for their children's education by themselves.
9kinds 28th-Feb-2013 10:44 am (UTC)
If people are interested, there's a vlogger who recently posted about this whole process on youtube.


darlahood 28th-Feb-2013 12:58 pm (UTC)
This is really interesting! Thanks for sharing the link.
the_physicist 28th-Feb-2013 11:58 am (UTC)
Written and deleted so much that I had typed, because I can't find the write words. I have too many feelings about this topic in general. -_-
mutive 28th-Feb-2013 01:25 pm (UTC)
Hmmm....amazing how familiar this all sounds...
hola_meg_a_cola 28th-Feb-2013 03:22 pm (UTC)
The eikaiwa I work for has a nursery in the same building and once a week, I go and do a two hour lesson there. While a lot of kids have left (some are beginning kindergarten, others are going abroad because of their parents' companies), there are at least one or two new trial students a week. The youngest age they allow at the nursery is eighteen months, so I can only imagine how many students they would have if they allowed newborns :/
__planitbremix 28th-Feb-2013 03:31 pm (UTC)
ah, so they make you do extra lessons* huh?
In the area I worked in, I had two co workers who had to teach at pre-schools.
hola_meg_a_cola 28th-Feb-2013 03:37 pm (UTC)
Hi there!! I should mention that I'm no longer working for Peppy! I'm at a different eikaiwa now. The nursery lessons are OT for me :)

How are you btw? Did you end up leaving the company?
__planitbremix 28th-Feb-2013 05:13 pm (UTC)
oh, when was your contract up?I also finished my contract and went back to the states. I miss my students though, would love to visit them next year. Planning on sending them all a box of goodies.And are the nursery lessons like the mama classes at Peppy? Those were my fave!!
hola_meg_a_cola 28th-Feb-2013 05:26 pm (UTC)
It ran up in December, but I switched to a part time gig for awhile and I'm going to become full time this Tuesday :) So, I'm spending at least another year here in this crazy country. The third year is still up for debate...

I remember you were thinking about leaving around this time last year. What made you decide to finish? Why did you decide to return home?
__planitbremix well1st-Mar-2013 05:46 am (UTC)
I needed the money,and I did have some good students in the end, so thats what made me stay. I would've stayed if I could deal with the mold in the bathroom, cold ass apartment cause they weren't built to keep in heat, and just other American nesscities I was spoiled by haha. Not to mention I got sick so much over there...I couldn't take another stomach virus or itchy throat...but in all honesty I would've liked to have moved to Osaka or fukouka if I did stay..and I just didn't have the drive to go job searching..
+plus I had a dog at home,and as nice as my mother was to take care of her while I was gone, staying another year was a bit too much.

Either way,glad to be home..=)

I heard you always know by the 3rd year if you'll stay or go. Two years is good though!

Edited at 2013-03-01 05:48 am (UTC)
__planitbremix 28th-Feb-2013 03:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah...reminds me of America. My friend was only given like a month to be with her newborn than had to go back to work....
My mom was able to take 4 years off of her job until I was read to go to Kindergarten and I don't think the company she worked for allows that anymore. Seriously..for a world that treats women like
all we are good for is pushing out babies, you'd think they'd have more common sense resources for us. And they wonder why the birthrate is
going down in Japan and want to push for anti-abortion..hah
hinoema 1st-Mar-2013 04:09 am (UTC)
Where is that icon from? It looks like Lion Chan!
__planitbremix 1st-Mar-2013 05:47 am (UTC)
lol its from Bleach. Its Kon!
velvetunicorn 28th-Feb-2013 05:25 pm (UTC)
This is such a depressing post. It's great that they have the option of public daycare. However, if they can barely accomodate the demand with the birth rate as low as it is why would they been pushing to increase it? I love the mentality that when women have jobs it's considered optional. The implication is that it's just for a bit of fun and to be able to buy fancy shoes. The truth is having the option to stay at home is a privilege. I wish more women had the option of whether they wanted to return to work or not. It's just not economically possible for a lot of people.
randomtasks 1st-Mar-2013 01:27 am (UTC)
And yet, Japan is doing all kinds of campaigns and even thinking of banning abortion just to increase the birth rate when they don't even have enough day cares and etc?
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