• Kyodo

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The number of children on day care waiting lists in Japan as of April 1 hit a record-low 5,634, as many parents refrained from applying for places at nurseries due to infection fears amid the coronavirus pandemic, government data showed Friday.

The tally, down 6,805 from the year before, fell below 10,000 for the first time since the welfare ministry began collecting data in 1994. The number of applications also declined for the first time, falling around 14,000 to about 2.83 million.

Many parents, especially mothers, are believed to have extended their child care leave or given up working to look after their children at home.

COVID-19 infections have been confirmed at over 4,000 nurseries across Japan, with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly among children recently, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

When the 180 municipalities where the number of children on waiting lists had fallen by more than 10 were asked a multiple-choice question about factors behind the decline, 87.6% attributed the fall to an increase of child care facilities.

Of those municipalities, 43.3% said the number of applicants was lower than expected. The most common reason for fewer applications was an increase in families holding back on using nurseries to avoid coronavirus infections.

The number of municipalities in Japan with no child on a waiting list comes to 1,429, which is more than 80% of all municipalities nationwide. Twenty municipalities had 50 or more children on waiting lists.

No municipalities had 200 or more children on their waiting lists, compared with eight municipalities a year earlier.

The longest list was 182 in Nishinomiya, followed by 149 in Akashi, both in Hyogo Prefecture. Chikushino in Fukuoka Prefecture had the third longest list at 137. The lists in 81 municipalities were longer this year.

The totals exclude so-called hidden children waiting for places at specific facilities or whose parents have stopped looking for employment. Their number decreased by 11,000 from a year earlier to 63,581.

To encourage women to return to work after giving birth, the government decided late last year to secure day-care facilities for 140,000 children in the four years from April 2021.

Having missed target dates for bringing the number of children on waiting lists to zero, the government now says it aims to meet the goal as soon as possible.

The lack of child care capacity is one of the reasons behind Japan’s low birthrate, which saw a record-low 840,832 babies born in 2020. The country’s total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime — decreased 0.02 point to 1.34 last year.

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