After 6½ years as a nursery school teacher in Tokyo, Saki Sasamoto had had enough.
Her pay barely covered necessities and the stress of the job made her quit without even thinking about what she would do next.
“I couldn’t stand it,” she said. “It was absolutely draining.”
Sasamoto joined the ranks of some 760,000 qualified nursery teachers in Japan who have opted to do something else. Low pay and a tangle of government regulations are keeping them away from a profession that is vital to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to encourage mothers to return to work and replenish the nation’s dwindling workforce.
Japan’s nursery schools are a perfect example of the government’s efforts to overcome the country’s economic challenges. Abe is pouring money into building nursery schools to ease a shortage of affordable places for toddlers, but has balked at tackling the bigger task of reforming regulations and policies that date back to World War II.
Those rules ensure low salaries and frustrating conditions for most teachers, forcing many to quit. The resulting shortage of places in Tokyo means parents start planning to get a preschool slot before their child is born.
Abe promotes a society where women can shine, but for nursery teachers, “there’s no way to shine,” Sasamoto said.
At the heart of the problem is a system of subsidies that the government provides to licensed schools, both private and public. Those subsidies cover as much as 80 percent or more of the cost of running a school, making it hard for independent, nonlicensed nurseries to compete. But the state funds come with strings, including a raft of regulations that cover everything from operating times to pay grades.
Nursery teachers, most of whom are women, made ¥219,200 a month including overtime in 2015, 34 percent less than an all-industry average of ¥333,300, according to the labor ministry. The turnover rate was 10 percent in 2014, according to the ministry.
Sasamoto said she took home about ¥160,000 per month after tax and insurance. Pay rises came with seniority rather than merit, and she struggled to focus on teaching because of all the paperwork, she said. If a mother was unexpectedly delayed at work, Sasamoto wasn’t allowed to look after the child.
“I wanted to help, but the rules got in my way,” she said.
As a result, in Tokyo there are about five openings for nursery school teachers for each applicant, according to the labor ministry. A survey of 31,550 nursery workers conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government between 2008 and 2013 showed 1 in 5 was considering quitting, citing low pay as the top reason.
“Nursery schools can be a growing industry, but unfortunately the government is keeping a lid on the potential,” said Naohiro Yashiro, a professor of economics at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo who formerly served on the government’s economic and fiscal council during Abe’s first stint as prime minister. “If there’s a shortage of teachers, their wages should rise naturally.”
Abe’s efforts to boost wages face budget constrains as the government tries to rein in the world’s heaviest debt burden. After delaying a 2 percentage point sales tax increase for the second time, he has yet to identify how to fund a promised 2 percent raise for nursery teachers.
Abe also seeks an additional ¥40,000 monthly bump for “skilled and experienced” nursery teachers, without specifying who will qualify and how much it will cost. Since Abe returned to power in late 2012, nursery teachers’ wages have risen 6.9 percent, almost half of which was supposed to offset the increase in the sales tax, according to public records.
Yasuhisa Shiozaki, health, labor and welfare minister in charge of nurseries, and Katsunobu Kato, minister for women’s empowerment, declined interview requests.
To address the shortage of child care, the government is trying to boost capacity for an additional 500,000 children by the end of March 2018. It is past halfway to that goal as it funds construction of new nursery schools, according to the government.
The problem is, the new centers will require an additional 90,000 nursery workers.
That is making competition to hire and retain staff extremely fierce, said Noriko Nakamura, chief executive officer at Poppins Corp., which runs about 160 nurseries. Staff turnover is high and the increasing workload is putting teachers under more stress, said Nakamura, who has served on government labor committees.
She said the company’s plans to expand by opening new centers have slowed because of the shortage of staff. Poppins opened 21 schools in 2014, but this year will only open 10.
“We are making an uproar about the shortage of nursery teachers,” said Nakamura, who wants the government to ease regulations and stop controlling pay rates. “That’s not the government’s business. They should leave it up to companies to decide.”
Part of the problem is that Japan’s childcare system is seen as welfare because it was set up after the war to help look after orphans and children who had lost parents. People expect the government to provide cheap care.
“In Japan, you can’t make ends meet without subsidies,” said Aika Yasunaga, 42, head of nursery care provider Doronkokai, which with its group companies is opening about 15 sites a year and needs to hire more than 400 employees annually to staff the growing operation.
While pay raises are needed, “that alone won’t solve a shortage of nursery workers,” she said at the group’s school in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, where there is a space for children to run barefoot in the front yard along with pet goats May and Momo. Operators need to improve working conditions, such as overhauling the seniority-based pay scale and making it easier to cut overtime and take vacations, she said.
Further pay raises for nursery workers would have to compete with other social program spending, such as pensions and health care.
“Babies don’t vote, but the grandparents do. They are naturally voting with their self-interests in mind,” said Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and a leading proponent of boosting female participation in the workforce. “Many regard childcare and family support measures as a cost, but rather than costs, they should be viewed as investments.”
Pay tends to be even lower at nonlicensed nurseries because they need to make up for the lack of subsidies by cutting costs and raising fees, said Hidefumi Morino, of WELKS Co., a job agency in Tokyo.
In Setagaya Ward, a booming part of western Tokyo, more than 1,000 children are waiting for nursery places, the longest wait list in the country. Even with such demand, independent school Love Clover Nursery is barely able to compete.
On the first floor of a residential block, about 20 children and seven adults share a space the size of a three-bedroom apartment.
Fees are about ¥130,000, more than five times the average for a licensed nursery in the ward. Every April, at the start of the school year, about half of the children leave once they get a place at a subsidized school, said President Shiho Tomisawa.
“Business is absolutely tough,” she said. “We struggle to hire staff in general, let alone nursery teachers.”
Setagaya sets fees on income levels and charges about ¥24,000 per month on average, according to Takashi Uemura, who works in the ward’s nursery coordination division. The last time it raised fees was three years ago.
“We can’t sell the idea that nurseries charge money in exchange for the service,” he said. “As far as most residents are concerned, the cheaper the fees are, the better.”
Not all parents agree.
“Of course the cheaper a nursery is, the better, but what matters is to be able to get appropriate child care,” said Yukari Sato, 40, who keeps her 2-year-old son at a nursery in Minato Ward, central Tokyo, while she works at an information technology company.
Outside of nursery hours, Sato pays a baby-sitter ¥2,000 an hour to mind her child.
That baby-sitter is Sasamoto, 29, the qualified teacher who quit her nursery job. After going freelance, her pay has doubled and her hours are shorter.
“I have no regrets,” she said.