A 41-year-old working father of two recalled the frustration he felt when he was unable to get his younger daughter into any of the nursery schools his family applied to since moving to Tokyo’s Koto Ward last year.
While the family found a nursery school for the elder daughter, the younger one, then 3, was forced to stay at home for the following six months. The mother, who was herself seeking work, was left with no option but to care for her daughter at home.
Although the family was able to withstand the financial strain, the father said he was surprised at the psychological damage the decision inflicted on his younger daughter.
“Seeing the older sister attending day care made the younger one frustrated. I saw her grow agitated with time, and that was hard for me as a parent,” he said, adding the couple decided to enroll the younger girl in a kindergarten, which keeps children for a shorter period, from this April. “I really think there is a structural flaw in the (child care) system,” he said.
Faced with similar problems in securing places in nursery schools, many families in Japan were seeking to change the situation with their vote in Sunday’s House of Councilors election.
As of last October, there were 45,315 applicants who had been denied places in public nursery schools around the country because of a lack of spaces, up 2,131 from the previous year, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
With many parents finding themselves in such a situation, particularly mothers facing the risk of losing their jobs or a chance to start work, it was no wonder an anonymous blog post unleashing the pent-up frustration of one mother who failed to get her child into nursery school went viral.
“Failed to get a slot in a nursery school yesterday … Damn you, Japan,” read the February post, purportedly written by a Tokyo-based mother in her 30s.
The blog even became a hot topic in parliamentary debate, and after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised doubts about its credibility, angry parents who could not secure a nursery school for their children staged a protest before the Diet building.
As the movement gained momentum, opposition parties called for raising the monthly salaries of nursery school staff by ¥50,000 to enhance the workforce, while Abe announced the ruling camp’s plan to raise it from April next year by ¥6,000 and up to ¥40,000 for experienced workers ahead of the Upper House election.
Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner Komeito, said his party will “speed up efforts to arrange infrastructures for child care and nursing care” and help young people and women to work actively in the society during a debate of party leaders last month for the election.
But experts in the field said the problem is long-standing and will not be resolved in a day, urging parents to continue pushing for structural reforms beyond the election in Japan’s elderly-focused society.
Abe’s government has pledged to secure 500,000 slots at nursing schools and other child care facilities by the end of fiscal 2017 and has already achieved more than half of the target in the past three fiscal years, but a shortage still exists due to overwhelming demand as even more women seek work amid a faltering economy.
“The increase of working mothers was expected, and had the government allotted a sufficient budget and organized infrastructure to accommodate this, it wouldn’t have turned out this way,” said Hiroki Komazaki, president and CEO of NPO Florence, an operator of nursery schools and provider of baby-sitting services for children suffering from fever or other childhood ailments.
Japan spent an equivalent of only 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product on early childhood education and care and other measures for supporting families in 2011, sharply below 4 percent in Denmark, 3.1 percent in Britain, 2.9 percent in France and 2.2 percent in Germany, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s latest data available for comparison.
“If the child-rearing generations would actually go out and vote, politicians would not be able to ignore (their calls) and would start shifting the budget toward them,” Komazaki said, adding that grass-roots political action through social networking and protests is also crucial.
Potential voters raising children seem to have taken the lesson to heart after experiencing the difficulties of getting their children into nursery schools but are not necessarily enamored with one particular party.
“I am taking my vote more seriously than ever, and I will consider the current situation (concerning child care) in deciding who to vote for,” said a 34-year-old mother in Minato Ward, who is planning to place her 1-year-old daughter in a nursery school by April next year, although she has all but given up hope of getting her into a public one.
Planning to start a business on her own, she knows she will get less priority than those who are already employed when her ward decides who should enter its nursery schools, and her best bet is to squeeze her child into one of the private-run day cares, which have independent admission standards but often higher fees.
Lawyer Taku Oi, who has been involved in legal cases involving nursery school admissions, said the current state in which households with children clearly in need of child care cannot receive such service is “unlawful” and could even be “unconstitutional.”
While municipalities bear the primary responsibility for resolving the shortage, Oi said, the state could also do its part by raising salaries to help prevent nursery school staff from quitting due to their low wages.
Florence’s Komazaki also called for deregulation to allow children up to age 5 to be looked after at small-size child care facilities, which are currently limited to caring for toddlers 2 years old and younger, and also introducing tax exemptions for owners of land and buildings to be used as nursery schools.
What Japan needs most, said Komazaki, is to expand spending to support child rearing to an “unprecedented amount,” as he expects more problems to arise in the future.
“I think (specialized) child care services, like those for sick children, will be in focus even if the (day care shortage) problem is resolved to some extent, and those issues cannot be resolved unless we have money,” he said.