The shortage of day care facilities is a long-standing issue in Japan, where the ranks of working mothers keep swelling, both out of choice and necessity.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made fixing the day care crunch a priority, pledging to boost open spots at nursery schools and to raise the wages of caregivers. But many issues remain over how to achieve this. Here’s a closer look at the day care crunch and moves to fix it:

Why does Japan have a day care shortage when the number of babies is declining?

Because supply still isn’t keeping up with demand.

Japan has been struggling to meet demand for day care centers since the 1990s, after the bubble economy of the late 1980s imploded, unemployment rose and more wives started working. The postwar family model of husbands being the sole breadwinners began to be considered impractical.

Also, with the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunities Law of 1985, which banned discrimination against women in the workplace, women began to make inroads in many fields and felt more natural continuing their careers after childbirth.

In 1992, the number of double-income families eclipsed for the first time that of families in which only husbands worked, and the gap has been widening since then. As of 2015, Japan had 11.14 million double-income families, as opposed to 6.87 million single-income families with full-time housewives, according to statistics released by the internal affairs ministry.

As such, efforts over the years by both the central and local governments to increase openings at nursery schools have failed to meet demand.

How does the government determine whether it is meeting demand?

The number of children on waiting lists for day care centers is a widely used measurement.

In 1995, when the government started releasing the relevant statistics, such children numbered 28,481 nationwide. By 1997, they numbered 40,523.

Observers say the official statistics do not show the full picture because the way such children are counted varies by municipality. Some exclude children who are taken care of at home by mothers who have had no choice but to extend maternity leave because they couldn’t find day care slots.

How to define children on the waiting lists has also changed. In 1995, the government counted everyone who was waiting for space at certified or government-run day care facilities, where fees vary based on parents’ income and are relatively affordable. Thus the number included children who attended private-sector day care centers, where fees can be much higher, and who are waiting to get into certified facilities.

In 2001, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry changed the way it counted the children. It started to exclude those enrolled in uncertified nurseries that receive subsidies from municipal governments.

There are also seasonal factors. Public day care facilities accept children only at the start of the calendar year in April. The ranks on waiting lists grow as a year progresses, so the number waiting tends to be much bigger in autumn than in spring.

In April 2015, children on waiting lists numbered 23,167 nationwide, up 1,796 from the same month the year before. The number surged to 45,315 in October 2015, up 2,131 from the year before.

What kinds of day care facilities are there?

The types of nursery schools are diverse. There are roughly two kinds: ninka (certified) day care and ninka gai (uncertified) day care.

Certified day care facilities must meet numerous regulations set forth by the Child Welfare Law, including minimum amount of space per child and staff-to-children ratios.

Certified facilities used to be run by the government or state-subsidized welfare entities; through deregulation, they now can be operated by private companies or NPOs.

Some kindergartens, which are supervised by the education ministry, have also been merged with nursery schools, supervised by the health ministry, and provide care for longer hours than before.

Many parents wish to put their children in certified facilities, not just because they are cheaper, but also because they are typically larger and staffed with veteran teachers. Certified nursery schools generally have ample play space, with an outdoor playground and a pool on the premises.

But many newly certified facilities don’t have such luxuries, as it is difficult to secure large plots of land in big cities like Tokyo, where the day care center shortage is most severe.

The Abe administration, which has promised to increase the number of day care spots by 500,000 in five years through the end of fiscal 2017, is keen to support businesses that set up nurseries for their workers. Such facilities can also accept children of people not employed by the firms.

While the government provides subsidies for establishing such facilities, however, they are still classified as “uncertified.”

How is the quality level of uncertified day care?

Many regional governments, including Tokyo, have guidelines on how to supervise uncertified day care centers and are supposed to issue corrective measures if their quality and safety standards come up short.

Cabinet Office statistics, however, show that the number of children who die in day care, especially due to being put to sleep in a prone position, is far larger at uncertified facilities.

During five years through the end of March, a total of 82 children died at nurseries. Of this group, 61 — or nearly three quarters — died at uncertified facilities. This figure includes 33 who were left asleep lying face down, with 28 of them at uncertified facilities.

But Aki Fukoin, head of the Tokyo-based group Parents Concerned with Nursery Schools, is worried that the quality of certified facilities is declining, too.

“When I go to inspect nurseries, I find many of the newly accredited ones these days are staffed only by young teachers, and they are visibly not experienced,” she said. “This is largely because of a shortage of teachers. Many operators are desperate to hire teachers from all over the place to keep up with demand.”

Fukoin added that wage levels for nursery staff should be raised drastically to keep them in the workforce.

Nearly half of those who obtain licenses to be nursery teachers said they do not actually wish to work at nurseries, with their No. 1 reason being low wages, a 2013 labor ministry survey found. A separate survey by the same ministry found that, as of 2012, an average nursery teacher — age 35 and with 7.8 years of experience — earned ¥214,000 a month, lower than the national average of ¥325,600 for all fields.

What can be done?

Fukoin says the Abe government’s plan to increase wages by ¥6,000 per month from next April is far from sufficient, adding that the working environment also needs to be improved.

She is skeptical of recent moves by municipal governments to privatize day care.

Intended to increase capacity and offer more flexible services, such measures have ended up driving veteran nursery teachers who have worked as public servants into administrative positions, Fukoin said, adding that it has contributed to the decline in quality at nurseries and could drive even more teachers to quit their jobs.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.