Like many full-time working mothers in Japan, Eriko Soyama, 36, had a tough time getting her children into day care to continue her career.
Soyama, a resident of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, had her first child nine years ago. When her boy was 5 months old, she tried to place him in government-authorized day care to no avail, and ended up leaving him in the hands of an unauthorized facility.
Last year, while seeking day care for her daughter, Soyama was forced to extend her maternity leave for another six months because a spot for her child was unavailable. Adding to her stress, Soyama’s employer, a Tokyo-based IT firm, was apparently unsympathetic to her plight.
“When I told the company that I needed an extra six months to take care of my child, the company did not really understand why, as they assumed it would be easy to find day care,” said Soyama, a full-time worker.
Luckily, her 1-year-old daughter was admitted to an authorized nursery in April, allowing her to return to work. But when she returned, she found that her pay had been cut and that she was being criticized for needing several days off to deal with her children’s emergencies.
Soyama’s situation reflects the broad challenges facing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose lofty growth strategies include getting more females into the workforce.
“Even if I have a place to put my kids, companies really have to change their corporate culture to allow diverse working styles so that mothers can keep jobs,” said Soyama, who is pondering whether to change employers.
Abe has vowed to dramatically increase the number of day care centers so women can work after having children. The goal is to accommodate 200,000 more children nationwide by 2015 and another 200,000 by 2017.
At the same time, however, he is pushing to have maternity leave extended to a maximum of three years from the current 18 months, and to ensure they get enough support to return to the workforce.
While many mothers and experts have welcomed Abe’s unorthodox crusade and his efforts to capitalize on female power, doubts prevail over whether his grand scheme is actually feasible and whether it will change a corporate culture that values long working hours and “service overtime” to one that encourages mothers to keep working.
Experts say the government has long ignored the gravity of the day care shortages, partly because the number of working mothers has been relatively low, especially in urban areas where many married women don’t have to work.
That situation is changing. Some 54 percent of mothers in Tokyo had taken jobs in 2012 to bolster family income, compared with 48.3 percent in 2007. That is partly due to the economic deterioration caused by the global financial crisis in 2008 precipitated by the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble and trading house Lehman Brothers.
Although the shortage is nothing new, the government has apparently not taken the problem seriously nor recognized the number of children in need of such services.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 24,825 children across Japan were on waiting lists for authorized nurseries in 2012.
Yet a survey by Hoikuen wo Kangaeru Oyano kai (roughly translated as parents looking into day care group) led by Aki Fukoin, who has been dealing with this issue since the 1980s, found that 55,222 children in 70 municipalities were waiting to be placed in authorized day care centers last year.
The gap reflects how the government defines “children on the waiting list.” The government figure does not count children whose parents declined admission from day care centers that were not of their choosing, or children who were accepted by unauthorized day care facilities that receive government subsidies.
The question of who can actually qualify as a waiting list candidate varies by municipality as well, clouding the level of demand.
A good example is Yokohama, which recently declared that it reduced the number of children on waiting lists to zero. The city doesn’t count children whose mothers are looking for jobs or children who were put in subsidized unauthorized day care facilities as waiting list candidates.
“Abe seems to be fascinated by the Yokohama model, but there are loopholes,” Fukoin said.
Experts cite several reasons behind the shortage of facilities. First, municipalities are generally reluctant to spend money on setting up more nurseries when the increase in senior citizens outpaces that of newborns.
In addition, despite deregulation in 2000 that allowed private companies and nonprofit groups to offer day care services, entering the market has actually been difficult because established facilities want to protect their turf.
“The Social Welfare Corporation (the main provider of authorized day care centers) opposed private operators from entering the market and colluded with local politicians to ensure their applications were rejected,” said Hiromi Yamaguchi, CEO of JP Holdings, the largest private operator of day care facilities.
Thus out of 23,711 government-authorized day care facilities, only 1 percent are currently run by private companies, welfare ministry figures show. But with Abe encouraging municipalities to authorize more company-run day care centers, things may change, Yamaguchi said.
“Abe’s decision really helps fight back against vested interests,” he said.
The plan to increase day care facilities also includes subsidizing unauthorized centers with the understanding that after a five-year period, they will receive official authorization, assuming they increase their numbers of qualified teachers and raise their pay.
Tokyo needs about 4,100 nursery teachers, but at present only around 2,500 out of the 5,000 who are certified actually work at day care facilities, according to a Tokyo Metropolitan Government estimate, apparently due to poor working conditions. Some question whether the gap can be properly filled.
“Abe has not hammered out any plans to maintain the quality (of care). I fear the quality of day care will be compromised for the sake of quantity,” Fukoin said.
Even if Abe’s programs can resolve the day care shortage and ensure the quality of staff, mothers still face employers slow to adopt a more accommodative mindset toward those with kids who need care.
Experts note many firms still value long working hours and are inflexible about working style diversity.
“A lot of mothers who initially sought full-time positions later have to turn to part-time work. Many small and midsize companies are not financially able to allow mothers to leave work early so they can pick up their kids,” said Emiko Aoki, head of Mother’s Hello Work, a government-run Employment Service Center designed for mothers.
Some more progressive employers are making efforts to better utilize their female workforce, however.
One is Shiseido Co., a leading maker of beauty products. It continues to take measures to retain and value its female employees, who account for more than 80 percent of its domestic workforce.
Shiseido’s quest for change began more than two decades ago. The company introduced a five-year maternity leave system in 1990. In 2003, the firm set up an in-house day care center called Kangaroom to accommodate the children of employees whose kids were not admitted to local day care facilities.
About 1,000 employees are on maternity leave and 2,000 work shorter hours. The firm admits such leniency comes at a cost, as others have to work harder to cover the absences.
Shiseido said it will also place less emphasis on the male-oriented concept that working long hours translates into better employee evaluations. The firm aims to increase the percentage of female managers to 30 percent by the end of this year.
“If we change our standards, working mothers won’t have the excuse that they face a lower evaluation or are criticized for lower production because they are raising children,” said Yuki Honda, 46, a Shiseido employee who is raising two children, including a 3-year-old son.
“I was promoted to a management post while reducing working hours. Creating more examples like me would give working mothers incentive,” Honda said.