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The Issues of Childhood and Parenthood in Modern Japan - 1. Shortage of Daycare Centers in Japan

Recently, I have had butterflies in my stomach. Prior to this April, the beginning of a new school year, our family (i.e., my husband, our son at age 2, and I) decide to move from Funabashi City, a suburb of Tokyo, to the Tokyo Metropolitan area, only to reduce my commuting hours thereby enabling me to juggle work and childrearing efficiently with minimum stress. Relocation entails hustle and bustle, but moving in itself is nothing compared to the anxiety of securing a spot for our son in any of the daycare centers in our new neighborhood.

Though preschool education is not compulsory in Japan, over 95% of children at age 5 attend one of two distinct educational/childcare institutions: kindergarten (youchien) for 3- to 5-year olds, many operating only for half a day, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology based on the School Education Law, or daycare centers (hoikuen) for 0- to 5-year olds, for more than 8 hours a day, under the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare based on the Child Welfare Law.

Due to the time and age constraints, working mothers are less likely to use kindergartens. In fact, as dual income families and nuclear families become common, admission to daycare centers has been accelerating noticeably in recent years, albeit a decrease in the number of pre-school age children.

In response to various changes in the environment around children and families, and more importantly, to halt the declining birth rate, Angel Plan (The Basic Direction for Future Child Rearing Support Measures) was formed in Dec. 1994. As a part of the implementation of this plan, a series of measures for the improvement of the daycare centers services have been taken. Foremost, there are many so-called 'waiting children' , who need to enter a daycare center (e.g., both parents work) but cannot, particularly children of younger ages and/or in urban areas. In an effort to eliminate 'waiting children' , admission to daycare centers has been significantly increased since 1995, mainly by expanding the capacity of existing daycare centers.

However, demand has been skyrocketing even faster, and the supply is not catching up with the needs of many desperate parents. As of March 2003, the nationwide capacity of daycare centers was apparently 1,961,752, while the actual enrollment figure marked 2,037,942. In spite of the critically low birth rate, this enrollment figure surpasses the previous record peak number, 1,996,082 of 1980.

Please note, however, that these figures reflect only the statistical data of the daycare centers that are approved by the government (Ninka hoikuen). In principle, there are two types of daycare centers: daycare centers approved by the government (about 70% in 2002) which can be public or private, and daycare centers not approved by the government (Muninka hoikuen). In many instances, these unapproved ones can serve to compensate for the disparity between supply and demand created in the regulated childcare market, and admit the children who could not get into the (approved) daycare centers otherwise. However, in certain regions, even these unapproved centers are operating also beyond capacity!

As you can see, the lives of Japanese working parents today (and unfortunately, mostly mothers' lives) often starts with running around all over the places to find a spot at a daycare center for one's beloved child. As for me, I just wish I could have devoted all this energy and efforts to my work. Although my family chose our new home based on extensive research on the availability of daycare centers in the area, I have learnt the number of open slots for the applicants is extremely limited at all centers. Should we fail, preventing me from working, I would be stuck in a situation of "putting the cart before the horse!"

I truly hope butterflies in my stomach fly away into the spring sky when this April comes.

My next article covers the topic of approved/unapproved daycare centers.


Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

National Institute of Population and Social Security Research

UNESCO Asia & Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Early Childhood Education

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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