As a babysitter looking for work, Naoya Miyatake was rejected a number of times by parents uncomfortable with him undressing, bathing and changing diapers for their children.
Like in many other countries, a prejudice against male babysitters — and reservations about them dealing in a personal way with children — persist in Japan. Add to that the ingrained “men at work, women at home” mentality of a patriarchal society, and the notion that women can be more trusted with children than men has long pervaded the child care industry, making male sitters and nursery teachers something of a rarity.
Determined to prove the gender stereotype wrong, Miyatake, 30, has over the years committed himself to an array of child-rearing jobs. At one point he was ranked as one of the most sought-after babysitters in Japan on an app that connects parents to sitters.
But in what he considered an affront to his efforts, two men registered with Kidsline — the very app through which he carved out a successful babysitting career — were separately arrested earlier this year for molesting children under their care.
“I was furious,” Miyatake said, recalling the incidents. “Just as women have made strides in advancing to the male-dominated corporate world, I was hoping to be a catalyst for change so that more men will enter the child care industry. I wanted to prove men can be just as good at the job as women.”
But with the arrest of the two male sitters, “I feel like my efforts have gone down the drain,” he said.
The sexual assault cases have arguably reinforced the stigma attached to men in the child care industry, while also highlighting the danger of “matchmaking apps” that have increasingly superseded traditional babysitting agencies as parents’ go-to platform for finding sitters on short notice.
Calls are now growing for Japan to emulate the United Kingdom in launching its own version of the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) criminal record check to screen out high-risk babysitters, with Japan’s health ministry considering the creation of a database of sitters convicted of sexual assaults.
Of the two arrested Kidsline sitters, one, Akinori Hashimoto, 28, was a repeat offender who allegedly raped several young boys and filmed himself assaulting them on his cellphone. His arrest, first reported in April, shocked the child care industry partly for the fact he had a national license as a nursery teacher, which likely helped shore up his credentials as a babysitter.
The other, Ken Arai, 30, was found guilty last month of fondling a girl under his care at her home in Tokyo and at a washroom in a nearby park in May, with a Tokyo District Court judge ruling his act was a “malicious, despicable crime that risks undermining trust in babysitting businesses as a whole.”
The officially recognized number of sexual assault cases against children aged under 13 totaled 976 in 2019, including indecent assaults at 731 and 173 cases of rape, according to statistics compiled by the National Police Agency.
Compared with countries like the United States, the culture of babysitting remains underdeveloped in Japan, although two major types of babysitting business are available. The more conventional of the two are agencies that dispatch sitters to parents.
Often expensive and with their application procedures arduous, however, services provided by these agencies have long struggled to gain traction, giving way in recent years to the other, newer business in the form of an online matchmaking site. These on-demand sites — the likes of which are dubbed “Uber for nannies” overseas — allow parents to directly approach and select whichever sitters they like, typically on smartphone apps, tapping into the need for more affordable, flexible services.
But overshadowed by their convenience is the dubious vetting of sitters that critics say has led to some unsuitable applicants infiltrating the sites.
Even before the Kidsline incident, concerns had long been brewing over matchmaking sites for babysitters, triggered by the 2014 molestation and murder in Saitama Prefecture of a two-year-old boy by Yuji Motte, a 26-year-old male sitter registered with one such site.
The killing prompted an amendment to the child welfare law that obliged sitters to register their information with municipalities to be able to work via matchmaking apps. It also resulted in the health ministry setting forth guidelines urging site operators to stiffen rules and protocols.
But even so, the relatively lax vetting process for sitters on matchmaking apps has remained a loophole.
While dispatching agencies often directly hire sitters following interviews and provide training — hence the agencies’ expensive service fees — app operators are mere brokers that are not liable for any trouble sitters may cause to parents, thereby skimping on the scrutiny of sitters, according to Aki Fukoin, head of an advocacy group of parents focused on nursery school issues.
Coupled with the fact that there is no qualification needed for babysitting, matchmaking services, then, “create the situation where pretty much everyone can become a sitter, and easily attract people with certain desires,” Fukoin said.
Men not needed?
To prevent a recurrence, Kidsline, for its part, took the controversial step in June of suspending all male sitters on the app from work.
In a September report reviewing the incidents, the company defended the debarment of male sitters, citing a psychiatrist’s assessment that “men are much more prone to display pedophilic behavior than women.”
The firm also vowed to beef up measures to filter out potential pedophiles by incorporating into its screening process — which did include casual interviews and training even before the incidents — role-play exercises, personality tests and written oaths that candidates must sign.
Kazuki Shibata, a 30-year-old babysitter based in Nagoya, said he is worried that the arrest of Kidsline sitters will further deepen the public’s misgiving of men in the child care industry.
He has good reason. One of the mothers he was babysitting for already told him, to his shock, that a flicker of doubt had crossed her mind after the arrests of the two men that Shibata might be “one of them” — before assuring him that she soon ruled out the possibility, seeing as he is always great with her children.
That Kidsline shut out male sitters across the board, however, made Shibata go through something of a self-esteem crisis.
“I felt like I was being told that women are all the industry needs after all, and that men are not needed for nursery and child-rearing jobs,” he said.
A database of sitters
The arrest of Hashimoto and Arai sparked calls for Japan to take a leaf from the U.K.’s DBS, touted as helping employers make safer recruitment decisions.
Working with both local and national police forces, the DBS, a non-departmental body sponsored by the Home Office, conducts criminal record checks that result in a DBS certificate being issued to the applicant. Recruiters can then ask to see the certificate, which typically lists the applicant’s history for convictions, cautions, reprimands and warnings, to make an informed suitability decision.
In particular, many of those seeking to look after children and other vulnerable groups for a living are required to go through the most stringent “enhanced check” that searches what is called a “barred list” to see if the applicant is barred from working with children or adults.
Amid a surge in interest in a Japanese version of the DBS, the health ministry here is now looking at creating its own system to protect against pedophilic babysitters — namely a database of both male and female sitters convicted of crimes including sexual assaults and issued administrative orders to stop working.
If put together, such a database would be a step forward in a nation where the lack of a centralized system has long prevented information on sitters who have received administrative punishment from being shared among municipalities, thereby letting such people simply relocate from one area to another and continue to work with children.
At issue will be who should have access to the database: Although the health ministry is positive that municipal officials will, at the very least, be granted access, its availability among dispatching agencies, app operators and the general populace including parents will be under close scrutiny, a ministry official at the Child and Family Policy Bureau said, declining to be named.
One option, the official said, is to disclose the database on Kokodesearch (roughly translated as “search here”), a government website the health ministry is involved in running to share information on day care centers, to pave the way for parents to do a background check on sitters.
But publishing the names of sitters with a history of punishment linked to sex crimes would no doubt raise human rights issues and would require thorough deliberation. The system is reportedly expected to be rolled out in April.
“Given privacy issues, we really need to be careful about how widely accessible such a database should be,” the official said.
Countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia have instituted a more draconian framework.
In the U.K., getting an enhanced DBS check and registering with the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills is a prerequisite for becoming childminders, who look after children in the carers’ own home. However, undergoing a DBS check is not a mandatory requirement for nannies, and many actually don’t have one, according to Helen McCarthy, founder of UK Nanny, a company seeking to empower the nanny industry.
“But if you do and it comes down to a DBS nanny and one who doesn’t have it, then the DBS nanny usually gets the job,” McCarthy said.
Australia has a similar system known as the Working With Children Check (WWCC) — a criminal history and workplace misconduct check that is a “legal requirement for all people in Australia who work or volunteer with children,” according to the Australian Nanny Association.
“The WWCC in Australia plays a vitally important role in protecting children,” said Matthew Taylor, a father of three in Sydney and founder of Kidsit, a website that offers babysitting tips.
Taylor, however, stressed the WWCC is not foolproof.
“Even if a babysitter or nanny has a WWCC and has passed a strict vetting process, it is essential to continually monitor their performance and watch for warning signs that may indicate that the working relationship is not the best fit for your family,” Taylor said.
The DBS system in the U.K. essentially involves applicants seeking to obtain the checks of their own volition. Not only that, the strictest “enhanced check with barred lists” is required only for certain sensitive roles, such as childminders, teachers, hospital workers and foster carers.
This means those with a criminal record will still have plenty of room left to rejoin society as long as they stay away from these jobs, child care expert Fukoin noted. The DBS, she said, is therefore laudable in that it strikes a delicate balance between protecting children and safeguarding offenders’ chance at reintegration.
But the database system eyed by Japan’s health ministry is more unilateral, potentially disclosing the list of high-risk sitters to related parties regardless of their consent.
The health ministry official took a dim view of Japan’s immediate emulation of the U.K. system, because it would necessitate a more comprehensive, cross-ministerial effort to centralize criminal records, going well beyond the realm of the ministry’s authority. Utilizing the existing platform, Kokodesearch, is “the best we as the health ministry can do at the moment,” Fukoin said.
Babysitter Miyatake, for his part, is adamant Japan follow the U.K. in ushering in an equivalent of the DBS framework.
“Having systems like that would allow me to have proof that I’m safe, and make sure that I won’t be regarded with suspicion, so I’m all for it,” he said.
A similar sentiment was echoed by Shibata, the Nagoya sitter.
Men in the child care industry, he said, are not only stigmatized but inconvenienced in little ways as many nursery schools, for example, still have no locker rooms or bathrooms for male teachers.
Still, outweighing these built-in obstacles are his pride in the job and a sense of fulfillment that comes with watching children smile and grow. With his fondness of sports, stamina built for hiking — his hobby — and outgoing personality that led him to spend last year globetrotting with his new wife, Shibata prides himself on being adept at entertaining children with a hefty amount of outdoor exercise.
“I’m pained to see how the incidents (with Kidsline sitters) may have strengthened the prejudice against male sitters and child care workers,” Shibata said. “But I hope people won’t forget that many of us are sincere about our jobs, and genuinely care about children growing healthy, bright and sound.”
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