Every morning I trundle my daughter onto my bicycle and up the hill to her public day-care center in central Tokyo before heading off to work.

There she spends her day with 14 other 1-year-old tots and her four teachers in “Tampopo gumi,” the “Dandelion Class.” In a large sunny room, she plays games, sings, snacks and naps as well as does the usual pooping, drooling and babbling that are central to a toddler’s day.

If a rash of recent U.S. and U.K. studies are to be believed, however, I may be placing her at risk.

They are the most recent volleys in the ongoing “day-care wars,” pitting traditionalists who believe infants are best at home with their mothers against feminists for whom day care is a necessity to keep women achieving in the workplace. In the middle are the bedraggled working families, who for economic necessity (and mom’s sanity) send their kids to day care.

Last spring, the latest installment of the ongoing U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Development’s “Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development” added to the furor. Having followed children from birth through age 12 since 1991, it says a small but significant number of children who have been in day care since infancy show aggressive behavior years afterward.

A similar study by the British government’s Department for Education and Skills found that children who spend more than 35 hours a week in day care show elevated levels of antisocial behavior. A previous U.K. study by noted child-care expert Penelope Leach came to more broadly damning conclusion: Group child care is, in Leach’s words, “Less than good.”

But not, perhaps, in Japan. What research there is here comes to different conclusions. A small study in 2004 conducted by researchers at Hamamatsu University’s School of Medicine over a two-year period at 41 government-licensed day-care centers found conditions at home determined developmental risks in children. (Surprisingly, for a country with a reputation for being less than hospitable to working women, as of 2002 Japan had more than 1.8 million children in 22,272 licensed day-care centers, nearly 20 percent of preschool-age children. Municipalities directly run 12,437, while the rest receive some public funding.)

In a comprehensive survey of all available research, a team headed by Takehiro Amino, a clinical psychologist and professor at Tokyo Kasei University who heads the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Day Care Advisory Board, came to a similar conclusion. According to Amino, until the 1980s, the general consensus among researchers — and the press — was that day care in Japan had a negative influence on children. This came, he says, from misconceptions of maternal care and “attachment.”

The cost for kids to play

The kind of day care available in Japan doesn’t come cheap. A study of Chiyoda Ward’s day-care system estimated that each child in day care required a subsidy of about ¥2.8 million per year.

The cost to families is kept reasonable because of day-cares centers’ sliding-fee scale. In the wards of Tokyo, the top rate is about ¥60,000 per infant per month and ¥30,000 for ages 3 and up with the cost varying somewhat by ward. The bottom rate is zero. This is compared to an average in the United Kingdom of £600 (¥137,000) per month for an infant under 2, according to Britain’s National Daycare Trust.

The average Tokyo day-care center is not impressive from the outside — many of the buildings are old and most could use a coat of paint. Budgets for toys are tight, so teachers ingeniously use old PET bottles to make rattle toys and strap old milk crates covered with contact paper together to construct child-size stools and tables.

The majority of money is spent on staff. Quality of staff is the linchpin of most critiques of day care. In both the U.S. and U.K., where there is little or no public day care, teaching positions tend to be low paying with high staff turnover. According to The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies in the U.S., the average wage for an American day-care worker is $8.78 (¥922) an hour. In the U.K., the New Earnings Survey of 2003 put the average hourly wage for child-care workers at £6.22 (¥1,420) per hour. Many of the teachers working in that country’s system have little training.

In Japan, full-time teachers at licensed day cares are either graduates of special two-year vocational schools or four-year universities. Teachers at public day cares are full-time government employees and members of the powerful All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union. A 2000 study from researchers at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research put the average wage of your typical public day-care worker at ¥350,000 per month.

Because wages are based on age and tenure, senior teachers can end up with fairly hefty pay packs in the long run. Research at Yokohama City University found teachers in some cities making as much as ¥7.5 million per year.

Public day-care teachers also receive excellent maternity benefits compared to workers in other industries. This means that many of the teachers (the majority of whom are women) are also mothers themselves, most of who have had their own children in day care.

“The question is not whether the biological mother is present,” he says, “but whether there is an abundant, fluent psychological context and interaction between the caregiver and child that engages the visual, auditory and tactile senses.” Thus, Amino points out, the Japanese system isn’t even conceived of as group care. The emphasis is on “one- on-one” care and an individualized curriculum — “fluent” care that best mimics maternal interactions.

To achieve this one-to-one care, child/teacher ratios are kept very low. In Tokyo public-day care centers, they are one to three for babies; one to four for 1-year-olds and many day cares exceed even this standard. Most also have a registered nurse. For each child, copious notes are kept with separate entries for toilet habits, play preferences, food and general mood and health.

As Naoko Horikawa, a 25-year veteran of the Nakano Ward day-care system in Tokyo, puts it, “We feed the baby, change his diapers and play with him every day. We really get attached to the child. When I was pregnant, I was assigned to the 0 class, and worried a bit if I would find my own child as cute as the babies I took care of at my work.”

Haruna Ito, whose daughter spent four years in day care in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward says “her teacher became a very nurturing presence in her life. We felt good about the center functioning as the parent while we were at work.”

If anything, there are times when I think my daughter’s treatment at day care is better than at home, where meals are generally a meat, a vegetable and an awful lot of pasta. At day care she gets a carefully nutritionally-balanced meal prepared on-site with on average six or seven different dishes, plus two snacks a day. When she began to eat solid food, the nutritionist assigned by city hall met with me, reviewing her teacher’s copious notes on how she chewed and how eager she was to join the older babies in her class at the table.

Yuko Oii, a mother who has had two children in Tokyo in Nakano Ward public day care, both from 2 months of age, agrees: “The teachers are totally dedicated to the kids. When my kids got a little older, they seemed to learn manners more easily and to be able to play with other children nicely.”

Amino notes that certain Japanese child-rearing traditions — both in day care and at home — may contribute to the differing research in Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. He observes that there is much less stress on a baby or young child being independent from his or her parents or caregivers in Japan.

Nowhere is this more evident than with “cosleeping” — children sleeping next to their parents. According to a study in Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, more than 60 percent of Japanese children sleep with their parents all the time with another 30 percent sleeping with their parents occasionally. This compares to 65 percent of American children who reportedly never sleep with their parents. An American child who has spent the day separated from his parents is apt to spend the night separated from them as well, while a Japanese child is more likely to spend the night sleeping next to mom and dad.

This physical intimacy, called literally “skinship” in Japanese, is also stressed in day care where many babies will spend their day strapped to the back or on the lap of their teacher.

“As infants, my children probably got more time carried around at day care than at home,” Oii says. “I am just too busy with running the house.”

The cultural attitude toward infant crying in Japan is also different. In the U.S. and U.K., there is still a pervasive belief that babies need to learn sooner rather than later to “self-soothe,” and that crying, past a certain age — a child’s first birthday say — can be manipulative. The noted U.S. child-care series of books “What to Expect” (Workman Publishing) warns parents of nighttime criers “not to pick up or take (the baby) to your bed” because they might get too comfortable and not learn to sleep by themselves.

Some experts encourage parents to allow children to “cry it out,” (sometimes called Ferberizing, after Boston pediatrician Richard Ferber who popularized the method), a practice in which a baby is left to cry until they self-soothe to sleep, which can take hours. “What to Expect” even tells parents to ask prospective day-care centers “whether a baby will be comforted when he cries.” When asked, the head teacher of my son’s day care looked at me uncomprehendingly and replied, “He’s a baby.”

“To not respond to a crying baby,” says Yuji Deho, a staff member of the day-care section for the Suginami Ward office, “is like turning your back while someone is talking to you.”

Moreover, for many families living in the often atomized urban environment, far from traditional support system of grandma and grandpa, day care has become a substitute extended family. My older son’s day-care teachers didn’t just take care of my son, they also helped me to be a better parent.

“Our regulation manual is very explicit on this point,” says Nakano Ward’s Horikawa. “We should teach parents how to raise their children.” This is done through regular meetings in which mothers (and fathers) share parenting difficulties and triumphs.

“Some parents can’t really attach to the child,” says Horikawa. “So the teacher tries to become attached to the child to show the child how to be loved as a child, and the child can take that home to their parents.”

In an era of rising levels of child abuse — an increase of 34 percent last year according to the National Police Agency — and neglect, Suginami Ward’s Deho says that the real challenge is giving even those non-working mothers the benefit of day care.

With the declining birth rate and the aging of the Japanese workforce, however, expanding day care has also become an economic imperative. Waiting lists are long, and competition for spots, especially for infants, is fierce. The government’s Angel Plan in 1994 and New Angel Plan in 1999 called for a massive increase in the number of day-care spots and greater flexibility to meet the demands of families who work longer, more irregular hours.

This has led to a controversial policy of privatization and deregulation. Ironically, expanding access to Japan’s day-care system may endanger many of the aspects that make it compare so favorably to that of other countries.

The future of day care

For part two of this series, on Jan. 22, Suzannah Tartan will discuss how the huge costs involved in public day care have put strains on many municipal government budgets and are adding an impetus to privatizing the system.

Applications for public day care are available from ward and city hall Day Care Sections. Though children may be enrolled on a space-available basis anytime, April is the usual start time, with applications due in early January. Foreign families are welcome to apply, though some degree of Japanese is advisable.


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