Welfare minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki on Monday unveiled a set of emergency measures to address the nationwide shortage of day-care facilities, including deregulation, to encourage women to keep working after childbirth.
However, some municipal officials contacted by The Japan Times on Tuesday expressed concerns over their ability to ensure the safety of children at such facilities despite the pressing need for more day-care centers.
“We place the highest priority on maintaining a safe environment for the children,” said Sanae Kuwako, section chief in charge of the issue in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. “We don’t think it’s a good idea to blindly ease the restrictions.”
While Kuwako noted the ward office has yet to come up with a plan in response to the government’s measures, 608 more children are set to be accepted in fiscal 2016 at newly created facilities in the ward.
Itabashi Ward had 378 children waiting to enter nursery schools as of April 1 last year.
Meanwhile, Kota Tanaka, section chief of the day-care division in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward Office admitted the need to address the shortage, saying there were around 3,000 children in the ward on the waiting list seeking entry into a certified nursery school as of Tuesday.
However, he said the ward office needs to carefully consider the new regulations, which cover enrollment limits and floor space requirements, as they are directly associated with the safety issue. Tanaka also noted the ward office will see whether the central government will provide subsidies to local municipalities to implement such measures.
Around 23,000 children are on waiting lists for spots at certified nursery schools, but the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s latest survey says 60,000 more were potentially waiting to enroll as of April 2015. By prefecture, 7,814, the largest number, were in Tokyo, followed by 2,591 in Okinawa Prefecture and 1,646 in Chiba Prefecture.
The move to improve the situation was triggered by a blog entry titled “Hoikuen Ochita. Nihon Shine!!! (Didn’t Get a Slot in Day Care. Drop Dead, Japan!!!)” last month that was penned by an anonymous mother who apparently could not get a slot for her child. The blog went viral, prompting the creation of a petition that garnered 28,000 signatures and was handed to the health minister.
The new measures are aimed at reducing public frustration with the chronic shortage and at promoting the use of temporary day-care services for children who can’t be placed.
The central government will ask municipalities with strict rules on the number of children allowed per nursery teacher to ease their standards. For small-scale nurseries that mainly take care of children up to 2 years old, the capacity will be raised to 22 per facility from the current 19. The government will also encourage such facilities to accept 3-year-olds.
The emergency measures are chiefly targeted at 114 municipalities with 50 or more children on waiting lists.
Regarding the number of teachers and nursery school spaces, some municipalities set standards that are stricter than what the central government requires.
For 1- to 2-year-old children, Setagaya Ward in Tokyo requires nurseries to have at least one teacher for every five children, against the state-set standard of one teacher for every six.
There are 2,184 authorized nurseries in Tokyo. If each facility accepts one more child, the number of children on the waiting lists in the capital will decrease by about 30 percent.
Whether to ease the rules will be left to municipalities. The government will also provide assistance to help cover operating costs for transportation so as to make it easier for children living in rural areas to travel to and from the day-care centers.
Also planned is the introduction of special consultation services for parents in need of child care services in municipalities with at least 50 children on nursery waiting lists.
The welfare ministry plans to increase the capacity of nurseries by 500,000 spaces by the end of fiscal 2017. But it may be difficult to build many new nurseries as construction costs are rising.
In view of this, the emergency package included an increase in subsidies for land rental, the expansion of nursery renovation outlays and the use of vacant rooms in elementary schools.
In April the government is scheduled to conduct a survey to get a look into how parents get their children enrolled in nurseries.
To date, the government has received some 1,000 responses from parents and others to email questionnaires since Tuesday last week.
The survey results will be reflected in the government’s Plan to Realize the Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens, due out in May