YOKOHAMA - In the shadow of an imposing highway bypass in Yokohama, laughter and excited voices mingle in the small playground of a day care center attended by 52 children no older than 5.
Although the location of the two-story Byobugaura Harukaze Nursery in Isogo Ward is less than ideal, neither the parents nor their children seem unhappy with the service.
“I felt a little apprehensive about the site at first, but once my daughter started attending, that uneasiness disappeared. On rainy days, it’s quite convenient to pick her up because the bypass acts as a roof,” said Rie Fukazawa, 32, whose 4-year-old daughter goes to the facility.
Although the bypass extends over the entire building, the playground and the parking lot, “it doesn’t bother me,” said Miho Kidoku, a 45-year-old mother whose daughter, 1, also attends. “It’s not noisy either.
“All the existing day care facilities were already full, so it was just such a blessing to be accepted by one that is close to my house. We’re happy with it,” she added.
The center is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and until 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
The children spend the day playing, eating and taking naps, but they also learn how to read and write, do basic math and gymnastics, speak English and play the piano.
“We face constant pressure from parents to maintain a high standard of service,” said Makoto Yoshihara, director of Shinaikai, the social welfare service corporation that runs the nursery.
Yoshihara said that on top of meeting parents’ demands for high-quality education in an allergy-free environment, finding highly qualified nursery school teachers is another big challenge lying ahead.
Byobugaura Harukaze is one of 69 new day care centers that opened in April to reduce Yokohama’s day care waiting lists. Facilities run by private companies, non-profit organizations and social welfare service corporations like Byobugaura Harukaze were all encouraged to enter the market by municipal subsidies. The city has added five nurseries since then.
Empowering women is one element of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic growth strategies, and he has said Japan should make full use of those who want to return to work after childbirth.
He also said that local governments should view Yokohama as a role model, since the city managed to reduce the number of children waiting to zero as of April 1.
Yokohama once had the longest waiting lists in the nation, with a record 1,190 children unable to enter day care in 2004. To rectify the situation, the city in 2010 set a target of reaching zero within three years, an achievement it proudly announced in May.
“It’s purely down to the high aspirations and leadership of Mayor Fumiko Hayashi,” said Eichi Sato, chief of the child rearing section at Yokohama City Hall.
“Hayashi, who was a manager at a private company, thought it was such a shame that women had to give up their careers just because they couldn’t put their children into nurseries,” Sato said. “She wanted to do something about that situation.”
Yokohama took various steps to rectify the situation, including opening smaller day care centers run by individuals or nonprofits and extending hours at kindergartens so children of working mothers can stay longer.
The city also started a concierge service manned by specialists to match families with certain needs to the appropriate day care centers.
“It’s important to recommend the kind of facility that meets each family’s needs. Some people work full time, while others are part-timers,” Sato explained. “If you’re a part-timer, you may not have to put your child into an authorized full-time day care. Longer hours at kindergartens might be one option.”
For working women who hope to raise children, being able to smoothly return to their companies or find attractive employment after taking maternity leave is certainly important, but finding good nurseries is a big issue as well.
Yokohama’s approach has made waves in the day care industry nationwide, and people up and down the country are waiting for their municipalities to follow suit.
“We will try to keep our waiting list at zero in 2014 as well. It’s challenging, because the number of applicants has increased, too,” said Sato.
“It’s not a matter of establishing new day care centers all the time. We need to grasp the needs of the community and know which areas of Yokohama need them the most,” he said. “We should build nurseries exactly where they are needed.”