Government day care falling short

More working mothers make already difficult situation worse

by Mariko Kato

The line of children waiting to get into government-subsidized day care is swelling for the first time in five years, a sign of these recessionary times, some observers say. But for others it is merely the latest blow in a long-term problem, especially for working mothers unable to leave their toddlers in capable hands.

Last October, more than 40,000 children were unable to register with government-approved day care facilities, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The situation is so desperate that when the National Association for Childcare Organizations (Zenhoren) in February opened a hotline for anxious parents, one mother rang in saying she makes her 5-year-old child look after her 1-year-old while she goes out to work during the day.

“But what appalled me was that she wasn’t asking for advice to solve the current situation,” said Naoki Sakasai, deputy manager of the group. “She was concerned about next year, when the older one starts school and there will be no one to look after the younger child.”

The worsening situation is partly due to mothers being forced to work as their husbands suffer layoffs or salary reductions as a result of the recession.

According to a nationwide welfare ministry survey of the 370 municipalities with day care waiting lists, more than 80 percent said things are getting worse because of an increase in working mothers, while more than a third pointed to local population growth caused by new condominiums.

While the situation may have worsened in recent months, the shortage of government-assisted day care has been a problem since 2001, when the Junichiro Koizumi administration started the “zero waiting children strategy.”

Although the government has since opened some 700 new day care facilities, last year reaching a total of 22,900, the number of children using them has also risen, by 300,000 to 2.1 million, according to the welfare ministry.

Sakasai said the root of the problem lies in the government’s misallocation of funds in choosing what type of new buildings to construct.

“The government has poured a lot of money into building apartments and offices and Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics, but it is not building enough day care facilities,” he said.

Indeed, financial difficulties are preventing 77 percent of municipalities with child care waiting lists from building new facilities, according to the welfare ministry survey of local authorities with waiting lists. Meanwhile, 50 percent said they are hesitating because they predict the number of children will decrease due to the falling birthrate.

For Yukiko Unno in Kawasaki, who was forced to extend her maternity leave after her baby son recently failed to get into government-subsidized day care, the authorities need to produce quick results.

“They say the number of children waiting will fall in five years’ time, but that’s too late for me,” said Unno, who works in the media.

Kawasaki has one of the longest waiting lists in the nation, with 1,332 children standing by due to an increase in residential units in recent years.

While there are alternatives to government-subsidized care, they are unfavorable for many. Private day care facilities can be more crammed and cost around ¥80,000 a month. In Tokyo, the metropolitan government has opened some facilities under its own criteria, which include longer operating hours, but they, too, have long waiting lists in many areas.

Applications to government-licensed facilities are made through local-level municipal offices, which assess how urgently each household needs day care. This means families need to be cagey when describing their situation, said Unno.

“The more unfortunate circumstances you’re in, the more likely your child is going to be accepted,” she said.

“Single parents have an advantage, so I hear that some parents fake divorce. And I’m deliberately returning to work in July even though I could extend my maternity leave, so that my son will count as ‘has been waiting’ when we reapply next year,” Unno said, adding that she will put her son into a different type of care in the meantime.

For others, however, alternatives to government-subsidized care are not realistic options.

Freelance writer Megumi Nakakoge of Meguro Ward, Tokyo, has to limit her workload to look after her son after he recently failed to get into government-licensed care.

“If I put him in private care, it would cost so much it would take away the point of my working in the first place, and there are no facilities licensed by the metropolitan government near enough to where we live,” she said.

Criteria for government-licensed day care vary among municipalities. In Meguro Ward, self-employed parents are less likely to have their child accepted than those employed by companies, according to Nakakoge.

“But I work full time, and having my child at home means there is substantial work I can’t take on,” she said.

To improve alternatives to government-licensed care, the government is planning to systemize the “hoiku mama” service, where a qualified nurse works at home looking after multiple children, starting next April.

However, Nakakoge said she has tried the service and found that the operating times are too short and there are sudden cancellations if the nurse is ill.

It is not just mothers who can’t work because of the lack of day care. Last month, fathers joined together in a march calling for better child care, led by the nonprofit organization Fathering Japan, which supports single fathers.

“We wanted to let people know that the problem concerns the entire household,” said Tetsuya Ando, head of the group. About 80 people, including mothers and teenagers, joined the march pushing baby carriages, he said.

In an effort to ease parents’ anxieties about day care, some municipalities use an advance reservation system.

One example is Minato Ward, Tokyo, which accepts advance applications soon after birth. If successful, the child must enter care before turning 1 year old.

“We wanted to allow mothers to spend their maternity leave without worrying about day care,” said a spokeswoman for the ward’s child support department.

However, competition can be as fierce as 10 applications per opening, and the number of children on Minato Ward’s waiting list increased to 270 in March due to increases in housing, she said.

A way for parents to ease the problem themselves is to visit the municipal office to collect as much information as possible, according to Fathering Japan’s Sakasai. However, for Masaki Aoyama, who had to quit her job because she was unable to find appropriate care for her baby daughter, that is not easy.

“When you have a crying baby with you, you can’t spend a lot of time in the office. Some mothers learn the ‘technique’ of getting children into day care from friends who are also mothers, but for those who have been in a work environment for a long time, that’s not possible either,” Aoyama said.

She had to leave her sales job after extending her yearlong maternity leave for six months. She lives in Setagaya Ward, which has one of the longest waiting lists in Tokyo, with 613 on standby last month.

Aoyama said the government should encourage companies to allow longer maternity leave and reduce work hours when mothers resume their jobs.

“I had my child at 37, so to lose a job and start looking for full-time work again is really difficult,” she said. “If I could have been more flexible with my work, I would have had more choices with day care and wouldn’t have had to quit.”