The number of children waiting to enter authorized day care facilities fell to a record low of 16,772 as of April 1, down 3,123 from the previous year, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said Friday.
Although calculation methods have changed over the years and not all statistics can be easily compared, the ministry said this year’s figure was the lowest since the ministry began to keep such records in 1994.
But problems still loom as demand for child care is expected to grow, given that day care services will become free from October for children up to the age of 2 from low-income households.
The government’s goal of matching all children with care services and bringing the number waiting for nurseries to zero by 2020 remains elusive.
“We will keep working to address the problem,” health minister Takumi Nemoto said at his regular news conference Friday.
As of April 1, Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward had the longest waiting list in the nation at 470. That was followed by Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, with 412 and Saitama with 393. Last year, two municipalities had more than 500 children on waiting lists.
Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward topped the list of municipalities with the largest decline in children waiting — 270 fewer than in April 2018.
As in previous years, demand for child care was the highest in urban areas. Children on waiting lists in major cities throughout the greater Tokyo area, also covering Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa prefectures, as well as in Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo in the Kinki region, stood at 10,625, or about 60 percent of the nation’s total.
Meanwhile, children in 1,299 towns and cities that account for 70 percent of all municipalities nationwide didn’t have to wait to enter day care facilities. Overall, six of the 47 prefectures — Aomori, Toyama, Ishikawa, Yamanashi, Tottori and Shimane — managed to match all children to day care centers.
However, the shortening of waiting lists across the country doesn’t translate to declining demand for day care, and the data presented don’t reflect working parents’ struggles with the high demand for day care.
The figures presented by the health ministry do not include children from families waiting for a spot at a specific facility or households with mothers who are not planning to immediately return to work after childbirth. The number of children from such households continues to grow each year and since April 1, 2018, it has risen by about 6,000 to a total of 73,927.
Increasing the number of day care facilities will not suffice in helping parents secure spots or in addressing other local issues surrounding day care capacity.
Securing a spot at any authorized facility, especially for parents in larger cities, is still an extremely tall order, and many families only dream about enrolling their child in a facility of their choice.
And such limitations affect the lives of working women. For instance, a woman who manages to find a spot for her child at a day care center in a place requiring a 30-minute commute each way will have a difficult time maintaining a full-time job.
Because the number of women juggling work with child-rearing has grown recently, by April 1 accredited day care facilities had received 72,000 more applications than in the previous year despite creating 112,000 additional spots at their schools.
In 2018 the government set a target to accommodate an additional 320,000 children by 2020 and 297,000 additional spots have been created so far.
The health ministry is hopeful that with plans for new day care centers growing each year, “we are capable of reaching our target,” a ministry official said.
However, the projects the ministry is referring to include plans for about 60,000 spots at on-site day care facilities some companies offer to employees. But many such plans have been put on hold due to a growing number of companies misusing government financial aid. None are accepting applications.
The ministry is now looking into what is causing delays in reducing day care waiting lists further nationwide and plans to introduce new assistance measures suited to each municipality.