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The Issues of Childhood and Parenthood in Modern Japan - 4. Childcare Quality of Japanese Approved Daycare Centers

Children's childcare experience is an extremely complex issue. So far, my son has attended two unapproved hoikuen (daycare centers), both of which are known for their quality childcare. Interestingly, the daily schedule (i.e., free play, outdoor play, naptime etc.) as well as the centers' objectives written in the brochures is almost identical.

Despite many similarities between the two, my son's experience at each center seems quite different. In fact, my talkative 2-year-old tells me his preference for one center over the other. One of the major differences originates in teacher profile.[1] The previous center mainly consisted of experienced teachers who retired from approved centers whereas teachers at the current center are quite the opposite, comprised of young teachers. The difference in teachers is reflected in the types of program activities, and the way they interact with children. As for me, both centers are satisfactory in distinctive ways, but I imagine children coming out from each program would be quite different.

In sum, the way teachers go about implementing the childcare philosophy or daily activities at daycare centers profoundly affects the future of Japanese children.

Albeit the lack of systematic study, I look into two interrelated components of childcare quality at Japanese approved daycare centers; that is, "structural quality" which refers to the objective aspects of the childcare environment that are often regulated by government, and "process quality" which refers to how children experience childcare (e.g, curriculum, teacher-child interaction) that can directly affect their cognitive and social development.[2]

Structural Quality
Largely subsidized and strictly supervised by the government, the structural quality of Japanese approved daycare centers, both private and public, is said to be of high quality. The centers must adhere to strict requirements that dictate space, play area, safety features, and qualification and number of teachers.[3]

Further, though limited to public approved daycare centers, teachers are considered as local government employees who are entitled to decent salaries and benefit packages.[4] In turn, there are many experienced teachers working in public daycare centers, keeping their turnover rate low.[5]

Process Quality
The process quality of approved daycare centers is rather obscure due to the lack of consensus on its measurement and comprehensive empirical studies. Still, we can make some speculations based on the available information.

Foremost, Japanese approved daycare centers are considered as child welfare institutions to nurture children who lack custodial care at home. Daycare centers are by no means preparatory institutions for an academic head-start, though they have evolved into offering some educational components, which are similar to yochien (kindergartens).[6]

An official document titled, Guidelines for Childcare at Daycare Centers, by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, provides some insights into the program.[7] The document outlines basic philosophies for childcare according to children's age in five areas: 1) child developmental features, 2) teachers role and teacher-children interactions, 3) aims, 4) program contents (i.e., health, human relations, environment, language, and expression), 5)other considerations. The guideline reinforces the role of daycare centers as providing a nurturing environment to assure children's holistic development through play and good daily habits. It is known that the way these principles are incorporated into the day-to-day curriculum is similar among public centers, but varies at private centers.

Discussion on teacher-child ratio
The quality of approved daycare centers in Japan appears assuring until one considers the minimum requirement for the teacher-child ratio for children ages 3 and up. The figure may trigger many questions on program activities, teacher-child interactions, and value that Japanese society puts on its children. Why is this figure set so high?

Table: Comparison for the Teacher-Child ratio at Daycare Centers in different nations.[8]

Japan USA
England Germany
Age 0 1:3 1:4 1:3 1:6 2:5
Age 1-2 1:6 1:4-12 1:3-4
Age 3 1:20 1:10-12 1:8 1:10 1:5
Age 4 and 5 1:30

As reasons for the high teacher-child ratio in Japan, some cite different expectations of teachers and education for children upon reaching the age of three: teachers are considered to be mother-like figures for children under 3 who lack maternal care and more as educators for children over 3 to foster their independence and a sense of membership in a group. Others justify it with the expertise of teachers and their low turnover rate, though this argument is limited to public approved daycare centers. Concurrently, there are some Japanese who prefer a smaller size daycare center and lower teacher-child ratio should there be a choice.

Generally speaking, however, the designated ratio, which provokes puzzlement among many non-Japanese, is not perceived as "problematic" in Japan.

Future Implications
Japanese approved daycare centers are believed to be of high quality, but close examination reveals that not much is known about the actual quality of children's childcare experiences and their longitudinal effects.

Though a recent increase in interest in childcare quality in parallel with policy discourse appeared promising at first, it turns out to be something deceptive from the eyes of children's advocates. To begin with, "childcare quality" is treated as a portion of the determinants for "childcare SERVICE quality," which also includes other determinants such as management efficiency (economists' perspectives) as well as convenience and flexibility of services (parents' perspectives). The overall study results then tend to favor private daycare centers over their public counterparts, presumably to justify the privatization and deregulation in progress. Further, some studies are flawed in their methodology as they do not conduct on-site observation to assess the process quality of childcare. Instead, they rely on mere document review and questionnaires for data collection.

In sum, I hope to see further development in the genuine study of "childcare quality," which puts children in the center of quality discussion.

[1] I use the term 'teacher' rather than 'child minder' for the Japanese term, Hoikushi.
[2] The structural quality and process quality are the two approaches that are commonly accepted to measure the childcare quality in the United States.
[3] Please refer to the original official document titled 'Jidou fukushi shisetsu saitei kijyun' (the minimum standard for the child welfare institutions) as well as 'Jidoufukushi hou' (Child Welfare Law) for details (see the reference).
[4] Public daycare centers account for 55% of all approved centers, and the rest are private daycare centers that are usually run by social welfare organizations. Please read my second article on Japanese Daycare Centers: Approved (ninka) and Unapproved (muninka).
[5] The turnover rate of childcare labors in private centers is about 2 times higher than that of childcare labors in public centers.
[6] Please see my first article "Shortage of Daycare Centers to understand the difference between kindergartens and daycare centers".
[7] The official original document is titled "Hoikusho Hoikushishin" in Japanese.
[8] Due to the difference in childcare systems, the ratio in other nations should be seen as approximate value not absolute value. I excerpted these numbers from the Shiomi's book (2003) and Asai's book (2003).


In English

Early Childhood Research and Practice

Economic and Social Research Institute, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan

Environment Rating Scales, in Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Japanese Center for Economic Research

Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare

National Institution of Population and Social Security Research

Quality-of-Life Policy Bureau, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan

The Future of Children

Specific Documents

Ben-Ari, Eyal (1997). Japanese Childcare: An Interpretive Study of Culture and Organization. New York: Columbia University Press.

Boling, Pat (2002). "Family Support Policies in Japan: memo prepared for seminar on working mothers in Japan at Yale, 7-22-02." Department of Political Science, Purdue University. Retrieved March 8, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Helburn, S. & Howes, C. (1996) Childcare Cost and Quality. Future of Children: Financing Child Care 6 (2). The Future of Children. Retrieved June 8, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Niimi, Kazumasa (2002). "An Economic Analysis of Market-Needs Oriented Childcare Reform." Japan Research Quarterly, Autumn 2002. The Japan Research Institute, Ltd. Retrieved March 8, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Noguchi, Haruko and Shimizutani, Satoshi (2003). "Quality of Child Care in Japan: Evidence from Micro-Level Data." ESRI Discussion Paper Series No. 54. Economic and Social Research Institute, Government of Japan. Retrieved March 8, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Oishi, Akiko (2003)."Chapter 4: Childcare System in Japan." In National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (ed.), Child Related Policies in Japan. National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Retrieved March 8, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Okada, Masatoshi (1992). Understanding Japan: Preschool Education in Japan. Tokyo: International Society for Educational Information, Inc.

Tobin, Joseph J., David Y.H. Wu, and Dana Davidson (1989). Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

In Japanese only

Hoiku o kangaeru oya no kai
A site created by a group of volunteer parents who are concerned about childcare.

Hoikushishin Kenkyukai (Hoikusho Hoikushishin)
A site providing the complete document of Guidelines for Childcare in Daycare Centers as well as Course on Study for Kindergarten.

i-kosodate net
A site providing up-to-date information on every approved daycare center in Japan.

Specific Document

Asai, Haruo (2003). Kodomo no Kenri to Hoiku no Shitsu [Children's Rights and Quality of Childcare]. Tokyo: Kamogawa shupppan.

Jidou-fukushishisetsu saitei kijyun [The minimum requirement for child welfare institutions]. Retrieved on June 11th 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Maeda, Masako (2003). Kosodate wa ima: Kawaru hoikuen, Korekarano Kosodate Shien [Current Situation of Childcare: Daycare centers in transitions and Support for Childcare from Now Onward]. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Quality-of-Life Policy Bureau, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan (2003). Hoiku Service Shijyou no Genjyou to Kadai: Hoiku Service Kakaku ni Kansuru Kenkyukai Houkokusho [The Current Situation and Issues of Childcare Services Market: Report by a Study Group on the Cost of Childcare Services]. Quality-of-Life Policy Bureau, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan. Retrieved May 6th, 2004 from the World Wide Web: )

Shiomi, Toshiyuki Ed (2003). Sekai ni Manabou Kosodate Shien (Let's learn from other nation's childcare support system). Tokyo: Froebel-kan.

Shiraishi, Sayuri and Suzuki, Wataru (2002). "Hoiku service kyoukyuu no keizai bunseki: NinkaNinshougaihoikusho no hikaku [Economic Analysis on Child Care Supply: A Comparison of Licensed and Non-licensed]". JCER Discussion Paper No. 83. Japanese Economic Research Center. Retrieved May 6th, 2004 from the World Wide Web: )

Zenkoku Hoiku Dantai Renrakukai and Hoiku Kenkyusho [Institute of Child Care Research](2003). Hoiku Hakusho 2003 [White Paper on Childcare 2003]. Tokyo: Soudobunka.

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Teruko Kagohashi
Teruko Kagohashi is a researcher in the field of education/international development. She received a dual master's degree from the Teachers College and the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University in New York in 2000. Ms. Kagohashi has extensive overseas studying and/or working experiences in the United States, Germany, Australia and Bolivia. She currently resides in the Tokyo area with her husband and three-year-old son.
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