New film sheds light on nighttime nurseries

Kyodo

A Japanese documentary film that attempts to dispel negative perceptions about nighttime nursery schools is being released in Tokyo as a curtain-raiser for a nationwide run.

The film, titled “Yakan mo Yatteru Hoikuen” (“Nurseries Open Even at Night”), aims to highlight the truth of struggling working and single mothers or single-parent families that are faced with few options but to leave their children in nurseries at night.

A deep-seated prejudice about parents who work at night persists in Japan, due largely to the image of substandard nurseries, known as “baby hotels,” which drew the public’s ire in the early 1980s after a number of incidents resulted in child deaths.

More than 30,000 children nationwide, however, are placed in nighttime nurseries.ABC Hoikuen, one of the nurseries featured in the movie, is a 24-hour licensed facility located in Shin Okubo, an area known as Korean Town roughly 1 kilometer north of Kabukicho, the busy entertainment district of Shinjuku Ward.

The nursery accepts infants as young as 4 to 6 weeks old and is often entrusted with as many as 90 children. The parents are mostly single mothers who work nights to make ends meet, female bureaucrats who often work overtime, and non-Japanese couples.

Film director Koichi Omiya produced the documentary at the behest of ABC Hoikuen director Kiyomi Katano, who wrote to him after being impressed with some of his previous work.

“Though many families are in need of child care services at night,” Katano wrote, “there has been no increase in licensed nurseries.” For Omiya, who knew nothing of nursery schools, the request came out of the blue, but he was struck by Katano’s enthusiasm and so agreed to take on the project.

Children at ABC Hoikuen eat dinner and then staff members assist with bathing. They go to bed at around 8 p.m. and their parents pick them up at various hours, including in the middle of the night when they are asleep, and even at dawn.

The film follows the children on their way home with their parents and also shows the experience of staff who look after them.

“I hope more people will share our thoughts and those of parents and children (in need of night nurseries), and follow our lead — even if just a little,” Katano said.

Even with a government child care system framework in place for working parents, night services were not envisioned. This led to a sharp increase of unlicensed nurseries where children could be placed in overcrowded, small rooms.

Problems worsened as unregulated “baby hotels” sprang up, leading to children being neglected and forcing the Diet to take up the issue after a series of accidental deaths.

Omiya initially had a negative view of night nurseries, but once he had signed up for the production he was convinced otherwise. He witnessed nursery staff devoting time and effort to soothe upset children and many concerned and conflicted parents struggling to provide for their families. To learn even more about night nurseries, Omiya also filmed at facilities in Okinawa, Niigata and Hokkaido, among other prefectures.

The Japanese government changed its child care system in 1981 to authorize night nurseries as long as they met certain standards, such as minimum staffing levels. But almost 40 years after the revision, there are still only about 80 licensed nurseries and around 1,600 unlicensed facilities. Omiya visited some of the latter to investigate why they have not received government approval.

“A healthy society is probably one with no night nurseries, but the reality is there are parents who need them,” Omiya said.

“Yakan mo Yatteru Hoikuen” premiers at Tokyo’s Pole Pole Higashi Nakano theater on Sept. 30 before being screened nationwide.