National / Social Issues | NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

Baby sitter option gains little traction amid parental reluctance

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Nearly half of parents in Japan who responded to a recent survey by The Japan Times have considered using baby sitters but have not done so, with many citing lack of know-how on finding the right sitters as well as financial constraints.

The JT recently asked the opinions of readers on hiring baby sitters or nannies in Japan. The use of such people is not common in the nation, despite high demand for parenting assistance, and amid the dire shortage of day care and nurseries, especially in big cities.

Of the 119 parents who responded to the online survey, 53 said they have considered using them, but have not yet, followed by 36 who said they have not considered them as an option. Another 30 respondents, meanwhile, said they have used baby sitters or nannies in the past.

Among the 89 people who said they have never hired a baby sitter, not knowing where to find a good one or a nanny was cited as the biggest reason for not taking this option. Financial constraints and not wanting to have a stranger in the house followed.

Parents interviewed by the JT echoed these concerns.

Vivian Morelli, 36, who works as a freelance journalist in Tokyo, has a 4-month-old boy. She said that she and her Japanese husband, a freelance filmmaker, get around the baby sitter problem by arranging their schedules so that when she goes out to work, he can stay at home and care for the baby. But like scores of other parents in Japan, the couple’s day care application was recently rejected on the grounds that they are part-time employees.

The Montreal native said she may have to quit her job if she can’t find the right baby sitter.

“I really need to find a baby sitter soon, because sometimes he goes away on a business trip,” Morelli said. “I don’t know where to look. The baby is so young. My Japanese in-laws are very generous and they really like looking after him, but they are not always available.”

Morelli said she misses the culture in the West, where teenagers often look after siblings or babies in their neighborhoods, often to earn part-time income. She is looking for a similar arrangement in Japan, partly because professional baby sitters are not affordable.

The average hourly rate for baby sitters in Japan ranges from around ¥1,000 to ¥4,000, but operators often require clients to book several hours at a time.

“Ideally, I’d like to find someone, like the daughter of a friend, because, when I was young, I used to baby-sit so many times. So if it’s possible to find a young student, I wouldn’t mind that, as long as the person has a good reference.”

Morelli said Japanese society expects so much out of working mothers, which might explain why few of them rely on baby sitters here.

“I don’t think a lot of husbands and wives go out on a date,” she said. “In Canada it’s totally OK to go out to eat on a Saturday night and get a baby sitter, but in Japan it’s frowned upon.

“I think there’s a stigma in Japan about getting a baby sitter. The mothers are always expected to be with the baby.”

Some parents who have used nannies are not without complaints.

Japan does not allow foreign maids or housekeepers, except in special “deregulation zones,” where municipal governments have allowed such people to come from overseas on an experimental basis. Some expat families are exempt from such restrictions and can sponsor the visas of foreign nannies, under certain conditions.

Nicki Yoshihara, a 39-year-old Dutch mother of a 3-year-old daughter in Tokyo, has a Filipino nanny who comes and baby-sits a few times a week. The Filipino is sponsored by a Dutch expat family.

Yoshihara moved to Japan four years ago with her Japanese husband from the Netherlands, where he grew up. But because he is on a local contract in Tokyo, he is not allowed to sponsor foreign maids or nannies.

Yoshihara added she once turned to a “silver service,” a government-run personnel dispatch center that makes use of elderly people, mostly retirees with technical skills. Seniors who register at such agencies perform a range of services, including baby-sitting.

“They sent someone who was 60-plus,” she said. “She sat for a couple of rounds, but it’s so hard to communicate with them, because they don’t generally speak English or speak very little. Also, you don’t really feel comfortable asking them to do anything else besides baby-sitting, because they are older and it feels strange to ask them to go grocery shopping.”

The JT poll, however, found that most respondents who have used baby sitters are happy with the results.

Matt Apple, an associate professor of communication at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and a father of two girls, aged 6 and 4, is one of them.

Apple, 43, originally from upstate New York, is married to a fellow language professor who is Japanese. The couple use a local baby-sitting agency three or four times a year, and are happy with their experience.

“We were reluctant to let strangers into the house at first, but we have had no major problems,” said Apple, who has written about his parenting experience in his 2015 book “Taking Leave: An American on Paternity Leave in Japan.”

“The company even allowed us to ‘trial’ the baby sitters by having them come over for half an hour while we were home, so we could see the baby sitter’s reaction to our kids, and vice versa. . . . We thought it was very well-organized and professional, if a bit expensive.”

Apple confided that he and his wife have disagreements over parenting.

“My wife in general is reluctant to ask our neighbors to baby-sit our kids, yet she was fine with hiring a baby sitter through a company. To me this was (and still is) a little stranger.

“I think my wife is worried about causing trouble or owing a favor or debt to our neighbors. Again, I don’t see this as a problem, because I just figure that in return we will help our neighbors at some point.”

Parents in Japan may also need to change the way they treat their children, to foster a strong sense of independence among them, said Myriam Elfwing, a Swedish mother of four children 3 to 15. Elfwing and her Swedish researcher husband have lived in Japan since 2003 and used Japanese day care, though not baby sitters.

“I feel (kids) are kids much longer in Japan,” Elfwing, who lives in Kyoto, said. “I think most Japanese kids are not used (as baby sitters) because they are considered too young.

“We want the best for them so sometimes we help them too much. When I go back to Sweden for vacation, my friends are like, ‘They can do this and that.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ “