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Legislation to make preschool education and day care services for children free of charge is now before the Diet. A key promise by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of the general election in 2017, the legislation, if enacted, would make authorized nursery schools and kindergartens free in principle for all children age 3 to 5, and for children up to age 2 if they are from a low-income household, beginning in October. Subsidies would also be provided to users of unauthorized facilities to partially cover their costs. The legislation is billed as part of the effort to shift emphasis of social security programs from supporting the elderly through medical and nursing care services to reducing the burden of younger generations regarding child-rearing and education.

While these objectives are commendable, concerns remain that making day care services free will generate greater demand and exacerbate the shortage of such services for children, which the Abe administration has vowed to eliminate by fiscal 2020 — a target that has already been pushed back from 2017. As of last April, the number of children on waiting lists to enter authorized day care facilities nationwide declined to 19,895, falling below 20,000 for the first time in 10 years as more facilities were built over the past several years. Still, the figure testifies to the still serious shortage of such services as more mothers try to re-enter the labor market after giving birth.

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