Families run into twin 'walls' as they seek after-school care

Until her only child started elementary school, working mother Hiromi says her life was “busy but manageable.” She and her husband had successful careers in the media industry, while their daughter was thriving at the day care center she had attended since infancy. Hiromi took advantage of the company’s reduced hours for mothers of children under school age.

“I was usually able to finish my work and get to the day care by 6:30,” she says. “My husband got home around 10, just in time to have a bath with my daughter and put her to bed by 11.”

The family’s finely tuned routine was turned upside-down when their child entered first grade.

“My husband was suddenly sent to the other end of the country on a transfer, but I didn’t want to give up my job to go with him. I thought I could manage with my daughter,” Hiromi says.

This proved to be far tougher than Hiromi had expected. She was obliged to shift to regular working hours and her workload quickly grew, meaning she didn’t get back to her Tokyo bed town till after 8 p.m. many evenings.

“My daughter went to school, then to the local after-school care center, and then she was picked up at 6 and taken by bus to the city’s children’s center under the ‘twilight stay’ program,” she says.

Within a few weeks of starting school, the girl began complaining of headaches and stomachaches, and by the end of the first term she was regularly missing school.

“Our doctor and the school counselor said she was stressed from too many changes in her environment,” Hiromi explains. “My mother came to stay with us to help out, but I knew I had to find a long-term solution. I felt awful because it was my work hours that caused the situation, but I didn’t want to quit my job.”

Hiromi and her daughter had run headlong into what’s known in Japan as the shō-ichi no kabe or “the first-grade wall,” a phenomenon that affects many working mothers and their children from the start of elementary school.

According to Yutaka Sanada, director of the National Council for After-School Care, the gulf between day care for preschoolers and after-school care for elementary school students is a major issue for parents and children alike.

“With day care, a child is taken care of all day in the same place and then picked up by a parent,” Sanada says. “From elementary school, children move from school to after-school care and then often walk home alone when the after-school care center shuts. It’s a big leap for a child.”

As Hiromi found out, some companies offering reduced work hours for mothers of preschool children then expect women to go back to regular hours when the child starts school. In reality, this can be very tough.

Hiromi says that while day care is “a paradise” for working mothers, having been set up to help them balance child-raising and a career, few such allowances are made for full-time working mothers when children hit elementary school.

“It’s so much harder at school, where events and PTA meetings are scheduled during the day,” she says.

Changes in routine add to the pressure on mothers and children. Since children can take a nap at day care, a late bedtime wasn’t a problem for Hiromi’s daughter, but elementary school children need to be in bed early to cope with their full days. Hiromi describes being in a constant race against the clock to get her daughter fed, bathed, homework completed and into bed at a decent hour.

Hiromi ended up taking a leave of absence from her job to get her daughter back on track, and was eventually transferred to another division. Today her daughter is a happy seventh-grader at a private girl’s school, but Hiromi still recalls first grade as “one of the worst periods of my life,” and the memory can still reduce her to tears.

Since last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been promoting the idea of a society where women can “shine,” with the goal of having women in 30 percent of private- and public-sector leadership positions by 2020. In line with this, the media often makes mention of Abe’s promise to build more day care centers and reduce the waiting lists for places at these facilities, thereby making it easier for women to continue their careers after giving birth. Considerably less attention, however, is given to the issues surrounding elementary school-age children.

Japan’s after-school care system is known as gakudō hoiku, which is often shortened to just gakudō. (This can be potentially confusing for those not familiar with the concept of after-school care, since gakudō on its own literally means “schoolchildren.”)

While the first facilities were established back in the 1960s by working parents themselves, the need for a national system grew as Japan’s economy boomed and lifestyles became increasingly urban. With more people moving to cities for jobs and the decline of the traditional three-generation family unit, mothers could no longer count on grandparents to take care of children when they went out to work.

Based on the National Council for After-School Care’s most recent data, 930,000 schoolchildren are currently attending the 22,000 after-school care centers around Japan. Forty percent of these are public facilities, while the rest are variously operated by NPOs, community groups and parental co-ops.

Although some after-school care centers cater for children up to sixth grade, many of the public centers only accept children until the end of third grade.

“When the system was set up, it was considered that from around fourth grade, children were capable of looking after themselves until their parents came home from work,” Sanada notes. “But more and more parents feel this isn’t the case anymore.”

Anne from Australia, a mother of two, is one such parent. Since after-school care finishes at the end of third grade in her city, her fourth-grader comes home to an empty house on the days Anne is working. Like many foreign parents, she is dismayed at this state of affairs.

“It’s shocking that it isn’t provided after grade 3. Do Japanese people seriously think that 9-year-old children are safe at home alone?” she says incredulously. “I have often asked friends what they think and their only response is ‘Shō ga nai‘ — it can’t be helped.”

Although Canadian Marie lives in a city where public after-school care is officially available up to sixth grade, the growing number of young families in the area means there aren’t enough places for everyone.

“Due to a jump in the school-age population, priority is given to the very youngest children,” Marie explains. “I didn’t put my second-grader in after-school care last year because I was told that her then-fourth-grade sister wouldn’t get in. I think it’s still better for them to be at home together than for the older one to be home all alone.”

With the start of fourth grade being the widely accepted cut-off for after-school care, concern about the situation facing older elementary-age children is increasing among parents, and the term shō-yon no kabe (the fourth-grade wall) is coming into vogue.

In a recent survey of working mothers of elementary schoolchildren by business consulting firm Uluru, 62 percent acknowledged that the fourth-grade wall was a genuine cause for concern, while almost the same number said that after-school care was necessary until the end of sixth grade.

Fourth grade is also generally when juku (cram school) starts in earnest for children aiming to sit entrance exams for junior high school. A number of the working parents interviewed for this article mentioned that juku seemed to be the default alternative for local children who have outgrown the after-school care system. Others sign their children up for after-school activities such as music lessons and sports clubs to fill up their time.

However, the cost for such activities can quickly mount. In a group interview with working parents using the public after-school care system in the city of Tama in Tokyo, one father said, “It’s OK for kids whose families who can afford juku and other classes, or have grandparents who are fit enough and live close enough to help out with child care. But what about the rest? It’s those kids who are cause for concern.”

This is the first of a two-part series on after-school care that concludes tomorrow. In some cases, first names only or pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of families featured in this article. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas:

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