National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Discrimination in day care is a vexed issue

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Last January, the mayor of Chiba, Toshihito Kumagai, raised eyebrows when he called for increasing the number of male staff in the city’s public day care program. Tending to children is still considered a woman’s job in Japan, which is why pay remains criminally low. Over the years, however, men have entered the field, and with the current labor crunch exacerbating the day care shortage in larger Japanese cities, Kumagai wants to encourage more of them to apply for jobs.

However, as the Huffington Post pointed out on Jan. 23, Kumagai’s statements, delivered via Twitter, didn’t sit well with a lot of people because he made a point of saying that these male workers would do the same tasks that female workers do. In addition to pledging that he would build men’s rest rooms and locker rooms in day care facilities (at present, toilets and changing rooms for staff are gender-neutral due to the assumption that only women will use them), he said that male workers would be charged with changing diapers and helping toddlers change their clothing, and assisting them in using the bathroom.

The backlash was quick. Parents said that they didn’t want male staff to touch infants and children, particularly girls, and they felt that this demand was not at all discriminatory. Kumagai responded by asking: Did these parents not mind it when their sons were assisted in intimate tasks by female staff? It is discrimination, he asserted, to demand that some chores only be performed by women.

“It’s amazing he could say such a thing,” commented one person in awed support of the mayor, but the opposition was strident. Another person said that 90 percent of sex crimes against infants and toddlers were perpetrated by men, and that they didn’t limit themselves to the opposite sex, thus implying that parents of boys should be every bit as concerned as parents of girls. One tweeter asked the mayor if he hadn’t read about the soccer player who was arrested for “sharing child porn“.

Huffington Post provided background on the Kumagai story. Other media picked up on the story as an example of sensational local news but didn’t go into detail the way the Huffington Post did. Previously, per parental request, male day care staff in Chiba were not allowed to change diapers and help with bathing. The mayor wants all day care workers to cover the same work unless there are “special circumstances,” which, apparently, do not include demands from specific parents for their own children.

During a discussion on Bunka Hoso’s Jan. 31 Golden Radio show, media and cultural critic Maki Fukasawa took Kumagai’s side by pointing out that the men in question are “professionals” — that Chiba city would only hire people with child care credentials to work in their facilities. Though Fukasawa didn’t say anything specific about the low salaries that are the main reason for the labor shortage in day care services, she mentioned that one of the reasons men accounted for only 5 percent of day care workers nationwide was a general disposition that nobody wants men to be around children.

“Most pediatricians are men, who routinely touch children in the course of their work, and their parents are fine with it,” she said. She asks why are male physicians, including obstetricians and gynecologists, considered dedicated professionals and male day care workers potential pederasts?

Since the same sort of attitude prevents men from seeking jobs as medical nurses, the answer must be because certain jobs are thought of as “women’s work,” and when men try to enter the profession, red flags go up in the public’s mind. People think these men must have some sort of ulterior motive. In fact, many female hospital patients and elderly recipients of care, as well as many men in the same situation (though probably for different reasons), don’t accept male nurses.

Another reason Chiba wants to encourage more men to become day care workers, according to the city’s home page, is to create an environment where men can be seen as nurturing, a quality that tends to be associated with women.

In that regard, Japan isn’t unique. In a Feb. 4 article on the Japan BuzzFeed news site, a 41-year-old Japanese preschool teacher doing research in Sweden said that Swedish parents also do not want men changing diapers of children not related to them. Consequently, the number of male day care professionals is very small, despite the fact that, due to Swedish law, equal wages are guaranteed between men and women, and that day care pays well.

It’s not much different in the U.S. A May 11 report on PBS NewsHour said that only 2-5 percent of preschool teachers in America have been men in past years, mainly owing to male prejudices about work they see as being for women. The report said nothing about parental anxieties, only male attitudes toward that type of job. And while there is still a gender pay gap in America, preschool teachers make good money, at least compared to service employment.

Not so in Japan, which is why there is a day care crunch. It’s hard work and even people who profess to love children often quit when they realize they can make more money doing something else that they may not like as much.

According to Kumagai, however, the main obstacle to more male day care workers is social disapproval, which one male professional feels is misplaced. In the same BuzzFeed article, Shinsuke Yamamoto, the manager of a day care center in Tokyo where five of the 20 workers are men, says that this disapproval is based on an adult viewpoint, when, actually, the issue should be approached from that of the child.

“We try to impart respect for every individual as an individual,” he told BuzzFeed. He understand why people are uncomfortable with men changing diapers and such, but says that “it is important to foster feelings of attachment (to men and women) from a young age” so that children develop trust in others. It’s a fine sentiment, but one that some parents may not buy. The world is a perilous place, they think, and kids should be made aware of that as soon as possible.