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AFTER SCHOOL ACTIBITIES

After-school clubs falling short as more moms work

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Working parents in Japan not only face long waiting lists when they want to enroll their children in day care centers, they also find themselves looking at equally long lists for “gakudo,” or after-school clubs, when their children take the next step and enter elementary school.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, as of last April there were 8,689 children nationwide on waiting lists for such clubs, where mostly first- through third-grade elementary school students spend their time after school and during school breaks — up from 7,521 around the same time a year earlier.

According to a survey in December by the International Affairs and Communications Ministry, more than 70 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 44 are either working or seeking employment.

Many working mothers have had to give up their jobs just because they can’t secure spots for their children at such facilities. The problem has become so acute that there is now a term describing difficulties confronting working mothers with first-graders: “shoichi no kabe” (the hurdle of the first grade).

Even students who are fortunate enough to gain admittance to an after-school club benefit for only a limited time. Many clubs — particularly the traditional, publicly funded ones — accept students only through the third grade, meaning that older children often have nowhere to go after school. Many end up staying home alone, often with a TV or computer games as their only companions.

Concern for such kids has recently given rise to another term: “shoyon no kabe,” or the hurdle of the fourth grade.

The government has taken aim at the problem and is looking to increase the number of after-school clubs nationwide. Officials have set a target of getting almost 1.3 million kids into clubs by the end of fiscal year 2017. Meanwhile, private enterprises — such as cram schools and private day care facilities — have rushed to fill the void, although for fees that some families can’t afford. Here are some questions and answers on after-school clubs:

How did the concept of gakudo come about?

The history of gakudo goes back to the 1960s, when a group of working mothers and fathers started after-school clubs and operated them themselves after finding themselves hard-pressed to find a place where their children could go to after school.

The Child Welfare Law of 1997 stipulates that children whose mothers and/or fathers are working should be given a place to stay after school until they reach “about 10 years old.”

Currently, about 880,000 children nationwide between the ages of 6 and 10 — or 1 in 4 students — use some kind of gakudo. Such facilities numbered 21,635 across the nation as of last May, 40 percent of which were public, while the rest were either publicly built and privately operated or privately owned and operated by parents and companies, according to Zenkoku Gakudo Hoiku Renraku Kyogikai, the nationwide liaison council for after-school clubs.

What sort of problems do after-school clubs face?

The biggest problem is that the number falls short of demand, especially in big cities.

A survey by the liaison council suggests that the actual number of children on waiting lists might be between 400,000 and 500,000, many more than are officially recognized.

“Of all the working mothers with first- to third-grade children, almost 70 percent of them work over six hours a day, which is considered full time. There are 1.32 million children whose mothers work full time,” said Yutaka Sanada, deputy secretary-general of the council.

“Only 880,000 of those students belong to gakudo clubs, which means that the rest — about 400,000 students — don’t have anyone to look after them after school.”

Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe pledged in his election campaign in February that he will increase the number of after-school clubs, in order to secure a safe child-rearing environment for working parents.

Some local municipalities, for example Setagaya Ward in Tokyo, have managed to eliminate their waiting lists due to cooperation from local schools, which now open up their classrooms after school for the children, staffed with local volunteers who offer diverse activities to children during their after-school hours.

However, these programs are supervised by the health ministry, whereas elementary schools fall under the jurisdiction of the education ministry, so it is often difficult for the schools and gakudo to coordinate their policies, said an official in charge of child care support at the health ministry.

“The government needs to encourage local municipalities to take action to increase the number of after-school clubs,” the health ministry official said.

How is the government addressing the major problems facing after-school clubs?

Based on the child welfare law, most government-sponsored after-school facilities accept children through third grade. Starting in April 2015, however, the ages of children accepted by these facilities will be expanded to children from fourth through sixth grade, matching the needs of parents who want to put their children in a safe environment throughout their elementary school years.

How are privately owned after-school programs different from traditional gakudo programs?

Recently, private enterprises and cram schools sensing a business opportunity have entered the after-school care market.

Privately run programs are basically operated in the same way as gakudo run by local authorities or nonprofit organizations, but they try to meet extra needs of parents, such as staying open until mid-evening.

Traditional gakudo generally close at around 6 p.m. Some private clubs pick up the children after school and later bring them home — instead of making the kids commute to and from the facilities by themselves — serve dinner and provide English, painting, science, gymnastics and other lessons.

The prices range from around ¥10,000 to as much as ¥40,000 per month, as opposed to public gakudo, which cost only about ¥4,000 on average, according to private-sector operators and the gakudo council.

What kind of private operations are out there?

Cram school operators such as Meiko Network Japan, Co. and Yaruki Switch Group Holdings, Co. are increasing their after-school clubs nationwide. Meiko started its first after-school facility in Tokyo’s suburban Nerima Ward in 2011, and in the capital it has plans to open two more within the ward in April.

Kids Duo, operated by Yaruki Switch, has 43 after-school centers in cities including Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe. It opened its first center in 2008 in Yokohama.

“We aim to make 1,000 centers in the next decade,” said division director Shigeyuki Mineta, adding that he sees growing demand in the after-school care market.

“Even though the number of children is decreasing, the need of parents who want to put their children into after-school clubs will grow,” he said. “We see a business opportunity because even though the number of children is decreasing, the percentage of ‘DI1K’ (double income, one kid) families is on the rise, and so is the amount of money (parents) spend on each child.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .