When it comes to finding a place to park the kiddies for the day, working parents generally have two options: kindergartens and day care facilities.

Kindergartens take in children from age 3 and are open for about four hours. Day care centers provide up to 11 hours of care for kids ranging in age from newborns to elementary school age.

These institutions have been kept separate, but kindergarten enrollment is declining due to the falling birthrate, whereas there aren’t enough day care facilities to meet the needs of working parents and hence many kids are on waiting lists.

This has prompted the government to ponder ways to put both groups together under one roof.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has pledged to submit bills to the Diet early next year to effect such an integration. But many hurdles would have to be overcome, including questions over hours of operation and added facilities.

Following are questions and answers on the integration of kindergartens and day care facilities:

Why is integration considered necessary?

Perhaps the main reason is that so many children of working parents are on waiting lists for day care.

The anemic economy is leading to more households with two working parents, and in a lot of urban areas day care facilities are few and far between.

In many cases, mothers are forced to quit work because no places are available to look after their children.

As of April 1, 26,275 children, a large portion aged 2 or younger, were on the waiting list for government-subsidized day care centers nationwide, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Kindergartens, meanwhile, are finding enrollment shortfalls. As of May 2009, only 69 percent of the nation’s kindergartens had a full complement of children, figures from the education ministry show.

The government believes that consolidating day care operations with kindergartens would be an effective way of rectifying both problems.

At the end of fiscal 2009, there were about 14,000 kindergartens and 23,000 day care centers operated through government subsidies. These institutions would be the targets of the consolidation.

What would the combined facility be like?

The merged facility would be known as a “kodomo-en” (children’s facility).

Working parents would be able to place toddlers in the kodomo-en, and they would also take in kids of nonworking moms when they turn 3.

Thus children between 3 and elementary school age would attend a kodomo-en instead of a regular kindergarten.

The government hopes to start the integration process in 2013 and complete it in 10 years.

The plan calls for a new ministry to be set up to deal with child care and other support measures.

What are the hurdles of combining the functions of the two types of facilities?

The main problem will be how to narrow the differences between kindergartens and day care centers, which operate under separate ministries.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry oversees kindergartens, while the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is in charge of day care centers.

A key difference is their hours of operation. Kindergartens are usually open for four hours; day care centers oversee kids for 11 hours or more.

In addition, kindergartens have summer, winter and spring breaks, while day care centers are open throughout the year except for some holidays.

Kindergartens and day care centers have played separate roles.

Kindergartens, as stipulated in the School Education Law, are preschools aimed at nurturing the basis of education with an emphasis on learning and usually involve a screening process before a child is accepted.

Day care centers, on the other hand, are set up under the Child Welfare Law. They are intended as child welfare facilities aimed at taking care of children whose parents are unable to provide care due to work, illness or other reasons. Admission is determined by local governments based on necessity. The emphasis is more on care than on education.

Observers say there is not much difference nowadays between what kids learn at kindergartens and at day care centers. But some kindergarten operators fear the quality of education may deteriorate if they operate for longer hours, which would give teachers less time to prepare for and review their classes.

Kindergartens are also allowed to set their own tuition, while fees for government-subsidized day care centers are decided based on parent income.

The highest annual fee for a private kindergarten is ¥1.2 million, but the average is ¥250,000.

Didn’t the previous Liberal Democratic Party-led administration try to integrate child care centers and kindergartens?

Yes, but with limited success. Influential lawmakers who have vested interests in both the health and education ministries were strongly opposed to the move, including the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

In 2006, the government started integrating kindergartens and day care centers, calling the new facilities Nintei Kodomo-en (authorized children’s facility). As of April, there were 532 Nintei Kodomo-en nationwide.

But because both ministries continued to oversee the facilities, the result was an explosion of paperwork.

To secure subsidies, Nintei Kodomo-en officials need to apply separately to the education and health ministries based on the number of their children registered as either kindergartners or day care attendees. Tuition for Kodomo-en also varies depending on how the children are registered.

Are there opponents to the merger?

Opposition is strong, especially among kindergarten operators.

Kiyoharu Nakamura, head of Kiyose Kindergarten in Kiyose, Tokyo, said that though he supports the idea, integration would impose a heavier burden and give little benefit to kindergartens.

“Accepting children at the age of 2 and younger means longer working hours for teachers and requires closer attention and care for children,” said Nakamura, who also runs a day care and a Nintei Kodomo-en.

Kindergartens would also need to install kitchens so they can offer meals, but it is still unclear how much the government would provide in the way of subsidies for such investments, Nakamura said.

Is integration a good idea for children’s education and care?

Experts say it is.

“By integrating the two, children will be able to enjoy a consistent early childhood education that will ensure a smooth transition to primary school,” said Takashi Muto, a professor of child education at Shiraume Gakuen University.

The importance of early child education has gained a place in the spotlight in the past decade, especially in Britain during the Tony Blair government, when the education of immigrants became a problem, Muto said.

In Japan, Muto said, the differences between each child’s abilities is a problem as child care and education vary in each household depending on the economic and educational background of the parents.

Are there any other countries integrating kindergartens and day care centers?

Yes. According to a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year, seven countries out of 19 respondents said they have integrated day care centers and kindergartens.

They are Chile, Finland, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Scotland and New Zealand. Among their stated reasons are the benefit of consolidating administrative work and creating a better transition to primary education.

What would happen to preschools and kindergartens at international schools in Japan?

So far, the government has made no mention of how the change would impact them. But it is unlikely there would be any dramatic changes.

“International preschools and kindergartens are basically not eligible for subsidies, so we are not normally affected too much by what goes on in the Japanese education system,” said Christopher Holland, president of the Tokyo Association of International Preschools.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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