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My nursery nightmares

by Jenny Holt

One thing that sets the Japanese labor force apart from practically all others in the developed world is the lack of women in permanent salaried positions. Unlike their Western counterparts, Japanese women seem resistant to the “you can have it all” mantra that has prevailed since the 1980s, and often abandon their careers when they have children.

As the labor force shrinks with the falling birthrate, captains of industry and gender scholars seem at a loss to explain why educated women are so reluctant to combine raising children with climbing the corporate greasy pole. This is a phenomenon that led Kris Kosaka to comment somewhat satirically in this paper (Zeit Gist, March 31) that Japan is awash with “overqualified housewives.”

Naturally, I understand that some mothers prefer to stay home and invest their education in their children. However, that didn’t stop me wondering why quite so many choose to give up promising careers — that is, until the arrival of our own child. When we discovered a baby was imminent, we decided to check out the local child-care facilities, confident that, with plenty of advance preparation, we would find a good nursery so I could return to work when the 16-week maternity leave ended. Although kind colleagues had urged me to take a year’s leave, I opted to return so early because, as family breadwinner, I couldn’t afford any loss of earnings.

We were hoping to arrange it so that we would only need to part with our child when it was absolutely necessary, and we began to search for a nursery offering a so-called ichiji hoiku option — flexible part-time care.

Surprise No. 1, however, came when we asked for a list of nurseries at the welfare office. The most desirable hoikuen are ninka hoikuen; they adhere to nationwide standards and all the staff are fully qualified. But in our area these hoikuen do not do ichiji hoiku. You have to send your child for a minimum of 48 hours per week.

We were uncomfortable with this rigid schedule, as we wanted to spend whatever free time we could grab with the baby, and I began to wonder how we could persuade them to share our child’s company with us. I needn’t have worried, though. All the public day-care places had long since been snapped up. We’d have to try elsewhere.

We started to look at the ninsho hoikuen — private facilities approved under Tokyo Metropolitan Government rules. There were two shiny new ones, but they were full and didn’t accept babies under 1 year old. So, we went to look round the rather less shiny facilities.

We made some appointments, but when we arrived at the first one I began to panic slightly. There was no playground and there were carts outside for piling babies in to wheel round the streets. The signboards were faded, the building shabby and of indeterminate age. Inside, the children were asleep in rows on floor mats. I had a lump in my throat. The assistant explained that they liked the children to have routine. They were expected to arrive by a certain time in the morning, to participate in “activities” (activities at 4 months?). They slept and ate at set times. “Babies need routine,” she said, leaving me wondering whether our child would fail to conform to their ideas of when it was appropriate to feed, sleep and be left to cry.

The whole setup seemed restrictive and old-fashioned, an impression that was reinforced later when we heard other parents’ stories about hoikuen — the frequent notes sent home dictating what children may and may not eat, stipulations about bedtimes, one-size-fits-all systems of toilet training and outdated ideas about discipline. It is a system that leaves parents feeling disempowered and pushed out of their children’s lives, designed for convenience and minimal staffing costs.

We asked about the elusive ichiji hoiku again. This was not going to be possible. Full-timers were a priority, and if we went abroad to visit grandma in the summer, we would lose the place. Shoganai — that’s life. Nurseries are oversubscribed, so they call the shots. Oh, and if we wanted to put our names on the waiting list, there would be a ¥20,000 fee.

But these quibbles were petty compared to what we discovered next. We eventually found a place that seemed more flexible, but the building looked shoddy. I have always been concerned about earthquake safety, and following the Sichuan disaster this concern intensified, but I presumed that there would be minimum standards to maintain.

Erring toward caution, I decided to ask the welfare office what kind of seismic safety assessments hoikuen were required to undergo. The clerk had no idea, but phoned to find out. It transpired there were no such requirements; that sort of thing was voluntary, and we’d have to ask the hoikuen directly. So we called them.

“Oh yes, we have earthquake protection,” they said. “The televisions are well strapped down.” But the building itself? “No idea,” they replied. “We rent the premises. Maybe the landlord knows.”

This was not the only problem we discovered. In private nurseries, only a certain proportion of the staff have to be qualified. Rules differ depending on whether the nursery is ninsho, nintei (accredited) or ninkagai (unlicensed), but it varies from one-third to two-thirds. Friends who had set up ninkagai nurseries reported that it wasn’t technically against the law to leave children without a qualified person in the building. They were not required to carry out criminal records checks on staff, either. I have also seen nurseries getting away with things that common sense and proper inspections should have eliminated: main entrance doors left open so strangers may wander in, toilets without proper cubicles, sinks smeared with dirt, and salmonella- carrying terrapins within children’s reach. And, of course, all those on the parents’ network have heard worse: stories of slapping and verbal abuse, and of unexplained injuries.

There are, of course, some excellent hoikuen run by conscientious people who are prepared to go well beyond the minimum requirements. But until children’s safety is properly legislated for, parents will face a lottery when looking for care. The standards required for local-authority recognition are low compared to those in other developed countries. There are vague moves afoot in some areas to improve things. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, for example, has implemented stricter controls on food quality and the ratio of staff to children. But what would it take for the authorities to implement a nationwide system of background checks and building safety standards? I just pray this is not a lesson that is going to be learned the hard way.

In particular, it’s time Japan ended its head-in-the-sand attitude toward earthquake safety. Someday a major quake will hit an urban area during the daytime, and if children are not protected adequately, distraught parents will be asking the authorities why.

Some people may think that I’m wagamama — that I should either shut up and take the day care I’m offered, or that I should quit my job, cram my family into a tiny apartment and stay home. After all, nobody asked me to have children.

But that isn’t the point. Japan needs well-qualified women in the workforce. However, no mother who can possibly afford to stay at home with her children is going to put them in the kind of facility I have described above just to do an average middle-income job. In fact, you’d have to have a truly stellar career to make it worth going back to work if you could afford not to — the kind of career that only the privileged few enjoy, with a flexibility seldom seen in Japan.

So what did we do? Well, we couldn’t face leaving our child to the tender mercies of the ramshackle day-care up the street. Fortunately my husband’s job is flexible, my mother-in-law is prepared to make a 150-km round trip every week to help out, and for the times she can’t make it we can just about afford to employ a nanny with the necessary qualifications (including first aid) from a reliable agency. Most people don’t have these luxuries. As the economy shrinks and families increasingly find themselves unable to survive on one income, more and more mothers will be left with no choice but to compromise their children’s safety and happiness.

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