Campus nurseries help new moms cope

by Tomoko Sunami and Michiko Munakata

Kyodo News

Sayaka Shibata, 31, a graduate student in a medical research lab at the University of Tokyo, might not have returned to the lab after maternity leave if the university did not open an on-campus nursery.

Launched in April 2008 on the Hongo main campus, the nursery for children of teachers and graduate students stays open until 9 p.m. in consideration of scientific researchers who are often engaged in time-consuming experiments.

It is a child-raising support measure being adopted by an increasing number of universities across Japan to prevent female researchers from forgoing their careers after having children.

“Research makes rapid progress, so it is difficult to take a long leave,” Shibata said as she came to the campus nursery to pick up her child. “I could come back soon after giving birth thanks to this facility.”

The university benefits by retaining competent researchers, the education ministry says.

“The purpose of opening the nursery was not welfare but was linked to the strategy of the University of Tokyo to win in international competition,” said Akiko Tsugawa, a professor in charge of gender equality at the university.

“Many brilliant women, mostly in areas of science, have given up their research for the reason of child-rearing,” she said.

“By offering child-raising support, we hope to lift the ratio of our female teachers to the levels of 20 to 30 percent seen at major universities around the world from the current 9 percent.”

According to the government, the ratio of women among scientific researchers at universities and companies is only 13.0 percent in Japan, compared with 34.3 percent in the U.S., 29.9 percent in Italy and 27.8 percent in France.

Concerned that Japan will lag behind other countries unless it secures capable female researchers, the education ministry began backing up universities with child-raising support programs in April 2006.

The University of Tokyo is not alone in its program. Universities nationwide, including Tohoku University, Osaka University and Kyushu University, have also set up campus nurseries at their own expense.

Nihon University is considering a day care service for sick children, who are usually asked not to attend nurseries until they get well.

Shizuoka University, Kobe University, Kanazawa University and Hiroshima University are among schools that provide assistants to female researchers who are raising children.

“It would be impossible to engage in research while raising children without Ms. Tani,” said Rie Kusakabe, 38, a biology researcher at Kobe University’s graduate school who has three children of preschool to school ages, referring to her assistant, Saori Tani.

Because Tani, a 25-year-old second-year graduate student, helps with her research, Kusakabe can go home in the evening even if an experiment is under way, leaving the remaining work to Tani.

“Having associated with Ms. Kusakabe, I have come to feel hopeful about the future, that it is possible to do research while raising children,” Tani said.

Kashiko Kodate, a professor emeritus at Japan Women’s University who has endeavored to support female researchers, said she believes Japan will not be able to lead the world in science and technology unless more of a helping hand is given to female researchers with kids.

“There will be no future for Japan as a science and technology powerhouse as it hopes to become unless the government encourages this trend,” she said.