Actualization panel has proposed a new set of support measures for children and child-rearing families. A main pillar of the proposal is to create a new type of preschool facility by integrating the two existing types of preschools: yochi-en (kindergartens), which are for the education of preschoolers, and hoiku-jo (day-care facilities for children). The idea is for working parents to be able to entrust their children to the newly created school irrespective of the type of their employment — full-time or part-time work. The issue is a long-standing one that the previous Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito government could not solve.

The panel should be praised for giving the integration a concrete shape by overcoming conflicting interests. But the proposal contains some problems that must be solved to decrease the burden of child-rearing workers.

The new measures are part of the Democratic Party of Japan government’s tax and social welfare reform, and represent part of its efforts to strengthen social welfare measures for younger generations. Some ¥1 trillion will be spent for these measures annually, with ¥700 billion coming from the additional tax revenues to be realized through a consumption tax increase. The government plans to raise the tax rate from the current 5 percent to 8 percent in April 2014 and to 10 percent in October 2015. The measures will be gradually introduced from fiscal 2013.

Kindergartens and day-care facilities will start to become sogo-kodomo-en (literally, comprehensive gardens for children) in fiscal 2015. Kindergartens are now under the jurisdiction of the education ministry and day-care facilities under the jurisdiction of the labor and welfare ministry. Day-care facilities are equipped with kitchens and can provide meals to children. They are of greater help to working parents, particularly mothers. Kindergartens, which lack kitchen facilities, don’t provide meal services.

The basic idea behind creating sogo-kodomo-en is to provide education and day-care services to children in an integrated manner and to strengthen support for child-rearing parents. In about three years, day-care facilities will turn into sogo-kodomo-en to provide both education and day-care services to children. But the deadline has not been set for kindergartens to become sogo-kodomo-en. Subsidies for day-care facilities and kindergartens that now differ will be integrated.

One problem with the proposal is that sogo-kodomo-en are not obligated to accept children under the age of three, raising the possibility that many children may be turned away. According to the government, as of April 2011, 25,556 were unable to enter preschool facilities. Of those children, 21,109 — more than 80 percent — were under the age of three. The government fears that if accepting these children becomes obligatory, kindergartens may hesitate to become sogo-kodomo-en because many do not have the expertise to care for such young children. Under the proposal, business enterprises and nongovernment organizations can run sogo-kodomo-en and receive subsidies if their facilities meet certain conditions. The government hopes these facilities will readily accept children under the age of three.

As sogo-kodomo-en are intended to accommodate 20 or more children, the panel has proposed supplementary measures that it hopes will be effective in providing services to children under the age of three. The panel envisages using currently existing smaller facilities for providing day-care services for six to 19 children and letting people with child day-care licenses take care of one to five children in their homes. These facilities and licensed caretakers will receive subsidies. The government sector must do their best to increase the number of such facilities and caretakers. This supplementary system will also be helpful in depopulated areas where it could be difficult to build larger preschools.

Under the proposal, local governments, representatives of labor and management, child-rearing workers, people providing services for children and experts can establish a committee to discuss how to improve services for children. As many local governments as possible should form committees to listen to opinions of working parents and help meet local needs, taking into account the economic situation and the composition of local communities.

The procedures for parents to locate a new facility that is willing to accept their children will change. Currently, parents apply to municipal governments and the latter finds a preschool. Under the new system, not only full-time workers but also part-timers and workers facing special difficulties in rearing children for various reasons — such as illness, child-bearing, job-seeking, studies — can entrust children to sogo-kodomo-en. But after they apply to municipal governments, they must find appropriate sogo-kodomo-en themselves and sign contracts with them. As many parents are concerned about these changes, municipalities should assist parents in locating suitable sogo-kodomo-en.

The central and local governments must carefully monitor the newly created sogo-kodomo-en to ensure they do not reject children who require long hours of care or have disabilities.

Even more importantly, the central government must enact regulations that will lead to an employment environment in which women will not suffer career disadvantages even if they take long absences from work to raise their children. The current situation in which many women are forced to quit their full-time jobs after giving birth and can only re-enter the labor market as temporary-contract or part-time workers must be changed or women will hesitate to have children and the nation’s birthrate will continue to decrease.

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