• Kyodo

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The number of children on day care waiting lists hit a record-low of 12,439 in Japan as of April 1, the government said Friday, but it abandoned the goal of reducing the figure to zero by next March.

The tally was down 4,333 from the year before thanks to an increase in the number of facilities, even though there was a record-high of 2.84 million applications for spots, up 58,000. The survey began in 1994.

“The situation is severe. We will aim to bring the number to zero in fiscal 2021 or later,” Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato said at a news conference. “Efforts to increase capacity have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.”

The total number excludes so-called hidden children on waiting lists — those who wait for an opening at a specific facility. Their number increased by 913 from a year earlier to 74,840.

More families are likely to apply for child care in the future since the government, in a bid to address the country’s low birthrate, introduced a free preschool education and nursery program in October last year.

The waiting list, managed by each municipality, was longest at 387 in Saitama, followed by 365 in Akashi and 345 in Nishinomiya, both in Hyogo Prefecture.

Infants up to age 2 comprised nearly 90 percent of the total.

Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, which ranked first last year with 470 on its waiting list, had zero on its waiting list this year after boosting its day care capacity. About 80 percent of all municipalities, or 1,341 cities, towns and villages, had no one waiting for a spot.

To encourage women to return to work after giving birth, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had aimed to achieve the goal of an empty waiting list by March 2018 but deferred it to March 2021 as the number of working women increased.

The welfare ministry is aiming to boost capacity by 320,000 during the three years to March 2021 but is likely to fall short by 8,000.

The lack of child care capacity is one of the reasons behind Japan’s low birthrate. A record-low 865,000 babies were born in 2019. The country’s total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime — decreased 0.06 point to 1.36 last year.

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