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Many government-certified nursery schools are scheduled to open in April, but some are questioning whether some of them actually will open their doors on time.

The concern stems from two factors. The first is the shortage of construction workers amid strong demand as a result of “Abenomics,” the revitalization of communities in the tsunami-hit Tohoku region, and preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The other factor is a shortage of staff, something that has been a problem for a long time.

“I heard some new nursery schools secured only 60 percent of the number of workers necessary as of January,” said Hiromi Yamaguchi, president of major nursery service provider JP Holdings Inc.

The Setagaya Ward office in Tokyo has announced it will postpone opening three government-certified nursery schools originally scheduled to open in April. The ward’s contingency plan is to build temporary structures on publicly owned land near the planned venues.

Government-certified nursery schools can receive government subsidies if they meet strict quality standards, such as the size of the schools and the ratio of staff to children.

But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of rapidly increasing the supply of nursery schools — to accommodate 400,000 children in five years — has run into problems.

“We asked training schools to send us candidates (for job interviews), but the number of applicants was less than half the levels in the past. I have never seen anything like this,” said the principal of a government-certified nursery school in Fuchu, Tokyo.

“Nursery school workers quit suddenly, while replacements are hard to find,” complained a senior staff member at a school in Tokyo not certified by the government. “Yet we cannot reduce the number of children to be taken care of.”

The gap between the number of job openings and applicants keeps getting bigger. The ratio of jobs to seekers is above 1 in Tokyo, and in some months it is above 3. Some new schools are having problems because they have had to hire people who are not professionally-minded or experienced enough.

The manpower shortage is also spreading to the countryside because nursery schools in the Tokyo metropolitan area are poaching workers from rural areas to make up for the shortage, according to Hironobu Ohtake of Funai Consulting Inc.

By one estimate, there will be a shortage of 74,000 nursery school workers nationwide by 2017.

Why is there such a shortage? Reiho Kashiwame, professor at Shutoku University’s College of Integrated Human and Social Welfare, says an increasing number of students drop out before getting a license, while some with a license do not apply for jobs.

“The biggest reason is the working conditions,” Kashiwame said. “The work is tough and involves long hours, yet the pay is low. Some students give up becoming nursery school workers because their parents object.”

“I want to know about society first by working for a normal company,” said one student with a license who decided to take a clerical job. “It’s OK to be a nursery school worker after I get married and give birth.”

There are other reasons why some people want to avoid working full time. The majority of staff are women, many of whom quit after marriage and childbirth.

There are over 1.1 million license holders but only about 30 percent, or 380,000 of them, are actually working. Amid Japan’s population decline, it is not easy to expect a huge increase in new workers. That means Japan needs to utilize “dormant” workers.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has announced comprehensive measures to secure nursery school staff, including matching workers with schools by retraining those who are not working and improving their working conditions.

Some municipal governments are already taking action. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government held six job fairs for licensed workers during the current fiscal year, which ends March 31. More than 100 people and 30 nursery school operators participated in one of the fairs.

But matching workers to nursery schools is not always easy. Workers and operators often have problems agreeing on the number of hours to be worked.

Potential workers are mainly housewives with children, and thus tend to want to work only a few hours during the day. But operators want either full-time workers or those who can work early in the morning or late evening — precisely the busiest times for mothers trying to send their kids off to school or welcome them home.

“Those who come back from a long period of unemployment tend not to last long,” JP Holdings’ Yamaguchi said.

Some say male workers may be able to fill early morning and late evening slots, but they are often unwilling to work because the salary is often too low to support a family. They also tend to feel isolated when surrounded only by female colleagues.

Nursery school workers are increasingly opting to work as temps even though full-time positions are available. Temporary workers play only a supplementary role, which means they do not have to do overtime or worry about paperwork, and do not have to be in charge of classes.

“They do not want to do anything troublesome. I am surprised so many people want to avoid the clerical duties and responsibilities, rather than make more money,” Yamaguchi said.

The need to increase pay for workers has been an issue for a long time, but that alone may not be enough to secure staff.

How about foreign workers?

Japan has started to accept foreign candidates for nurses and caretakers under economic partnership agreements with some Southeast Asian countries. In the United States and Europe, it is not unusual for families in the upper middle class and above to hire baby-sitters and maids, many of whom are immigrants. In Hong Kong, maids are mainly Southeast Asian nationals.

But many people in Japan don’t want their children raised by foreigners.

“A baby’s first three years are integral to the cultivation of their personality as a Japanese,” Yamaguchi said.

Nurses and caretakers look after adults, but they also must teach the language, culture and manners specific to Japanese society. It may not be realistic to expect non-Japanese-speaking foreigners to play a such role.

Child rearing is an investment in Japan and its culture. It is time for the government to decide on bold cash injections to improve the working environments of those who work in nurseries.

This section has featured translated stories on hot national topics from the monthly magazine Wedge since last October. This is the last installment. The original article was published in the March issue.

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