The revamped version of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s growth strategy will likely call on companies and state entities to insert more women into senior positions and aim to improve public child care support to shore up Japan’s shrinking workforce.
But if Abe wants to bring out working mothers’ full potential, he should address child care needs that can arise from unexpected situations, according to Keiko Koda, head of AsMama, a Yokohama-based startup that acts as a matchmaker for mothers offering and seeking child care services.
For example, a mother at work may get an unexpected phone call from the nursery asking her to pick up her boy because he is showing cold symptoms. Or her daughter in elementary school might call to say she’s been locked out of the house and waiting to be let in. Or the mother herself may have trouble getting to the nursery on time due to a train delay.
“I could deal with situations like that for my daughter because my pay was as good as what men earn,” said Koda, who was manager of public relations at a venture capital firm until she was unexpectedly fired in the wave of layoffs triggered by the global economic crisis, in summer 2009.
After being laid off she turned to vocational training. As she got to know other jobless women there, she realized that “not all women are blessed like me . . . and that many women have in the back of their mind a feeling that they can no longer do what they wanted to do after childbirth.”
Family support services, in which local governments match families with registered caregivers, can supplement fixed-hour child care services such as nurseries and after-school child care by filling irregular and after-hours needs at low cost.
But family support services only work if a registered caregiver is available when help is needed. And while there is more flexibility in private-sector services, such as baby sitters, they are far too expensive for the average family, according to Koda, who said she has tried every option available.
“I looked around for a (child care) system that anyone can use at anytime, anywhere, and is reliable, and when I couldn’t find any, I thought someone had to do something about this,” she said. “And I finally said, ‘If no one else does it, I’ll do it.’ “
AsMama, established in November 2009, addresses unexpected child care needs through a unique arrangement in which working mothers form an army of helpers basically composed of acquaintances who can be asked to pitch in at any time.
Upon joining AsMama, members submit their personal profiles. They are then asked to create a network of mothers they already have connections with, such as those in the same apartment building or neighborhood, or those whose children go to the same school as their own, by inviting them to join AsMama.
“The important thing is how well you know each other,” Koda said.
As friends join, members can send child care support requests to any or all of them through the AsMama website, which is accessible by smartphone or computer. For the support provided, AsMama asks members to pay an hourly fee of ¥500, which members hand the caregiver directly. The company doesn’t charge its 10,000 members a fee, but earns revenue through partnerships with corporations that sponsor more than 400 social events for them each year.
While she welcomes Abe’s aim to improve child care, Koda is skeptical of whether the government can ensure its quality, arguing that there is more at play than simply having government-approved qualifications. For Koda, child care is more about compatibility between the child and the caregiver.
“I have seen so many qualified caregivers who made me say, ‘Does she really have the qualifications?’ ” Koda said. “I had some baby sitters from a reputable agency, too, but the situation was the same. Some just had a bad character match with our daughter.”
Koda also pointed out that the shift in working styles has led more people to work on weekends or engage in shift work, making flexibility in child care all the more important.
“If they only increase the number of nurseries and after-school care systems, that won’t be good enough to meet actual needs,” she said.