By Hiroyuki Yoneyama and Ikuko Higuchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersThe Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has announced that the number of children on waiting lists to enroll in day care centers has fallen for the first time in four years. It was the result of a substantial increase in capacity due to openings of certified childcare institutions and company-initiated childcare facilities (see below) that are aimed mainly at the children of employees.
However, with preschool education and childcare becoming free from autumn 2019, officials of municipal governments voiced concern that there will be a further rise in the demand for day care and the number of children on waiting lists will again increase as a result.
On Aug. 11, a public holiday, 13 children were having lunch at Aeon Yumemirai Nursery School, a company-initiated childcare facility located on the second floor of a large shopping mall in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.
Shopping mall operator Aeon Mall Co. opened the facility in May. It operates from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. A total of 26 children of mall employees use the facility.
With a company-initiated model, the operating firm can freely set the schools’ opening hours and other factors in accordance with the employees’ labor conditions. This provides an environment in which employees can leave their children while they work, which helps companies to secure workers. Local governments think this approach is useful to reduce the number of children on day care waiting lists.
Miki Shike, 24, who uses the facility, said: “Sometimes I work on holidays. Certified childcare facilities are normally closed on Sundays and holidays, so it’s really helpful.”
An Iwaki city government official said, “We’re grateful that private providers support a variety of needs of parents and guardians.”
According to the health ministry, the capacity of childcare facilities was expanded to accept about 108,000 more children nationwide in fiscal 2017, and, of this expanded capacity, company-initiated childcare facilities accounted for about 39,000.
Municipalities where many children are on waiting lists are trying to set up day care facilities. In places like Setagaya Ward, Tokyo; Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture; Sendai and Fukuoka, certified childcare facilities were opened in parks. The city of Osaka utilized conference rooms in the city hall and ward offices to open 17 certified childcare facilities.
Worries about quality of care
Such initiatives helped decrease the number of children on waiting lists this year, but the number of applicants for childcare facilities has been increasing. Despite low birthrates, childcare needs are expected to continue to rise for the foreseeable future in conjunction with more and more women having jobs.
There are also concerns about how the quality of childcare should be maintained. In a survey of 432 company-initiated childcare facilities in the first half of fiscal 2017 by Jido Ikusei Kyokai — a public interest foundation that conducts research and provides guidance to such facilities — it was found that about 70 percent did not have allergy manuals available and were not properly conducting infant health checkups. As a result, they were given instructions to improve the situation. Supervision at childcare facilities by municipal governments cannot be said to be sufficient due to such factors as staff shortages.
It is also important to resolve the shortage of day care workers, as the number of childcare facilities is increasing. According to government statistics, the average monthly wage of day care workers in 2017 was about ¥100,000 less than the average wage across all occupations. Improvements are being made to address this issue, but the difference is still large.
Masayuki Yoshida, who represents the Research Institute for System on Childcare and Early Childhood Education, said: “If we can’t ensure adequate numbers of day care workers, we won’t be able to accept children at full capacity even if new facilities are built. The staff shortage is directly linked to the quality of care. Municipalities must keep an eye on ensuring sufficient numbers of day care workers while building new facilities.”
■Company-initiated childcare facility
Non-certified childcare facilities established by companies mainly for their employees. There is no need to submit applications to municipalities, so parents can contract with them directly. The move to establish these facilities was launched in fiscal 2016 by the Cabinet Office to reduce the number of children on waiting lists. The central government provides subsidies to these facilities. As of the end of March 2018, there were 2,597 facilities nationwide.
Free care may boost demand
While the number of children on waiting lists to enroll in day care centers has decreased, the future is uncertain. This is because the government plans to introduce free early childhood education and day care in October next year, which may cause demand for childcare centers to grow among parents not currently aiming to use those facilities.
In an explanatory meeting for people who want to use day care centers, which was held in late August in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, officials of the city government came under a barrage of questions from parents. The questions include, “You’re saying you’re increasing the number of childcare centers, but are there enough day care workers?” and “Will they provide good childcare?”
The number of children on the waiting list in the city stands at 571, the highest in the country, up by 24 from last year. A major reason for this is that the city introduced its own free childcare program two years ago. Under the program, parents can have their second child and beyond, from infancy onward, go to certified childcare centers for free regardless of their household income. This resulted in a surge in the number of applications.
A woman in Akashi, who is considering using a day care center for her third child, said: “Currently, I do some work at home only when my child is sleeping in the daytime. But I’d like to ask a day care center to take care of my child, if it were free, and work more. I think other mothers think the same way.”
The government plans to introduce free day care for all children aged 3 to 5. For households who are exempt from resident tax, the age range would be expanded to include infants.
Hiroyuki Harada, director of the city’s child waiting list emergency response team, said: “Honestly, we do not know what kind of impact the government’s planned free childcare will bring about. There are already many waiting children, so we would like to make strenuous efforts to increase the number of facilities.”
The city of Oita, which reduced the number of children on waiting lists by 450 from spring last year, is concerned about a possible rapid increase in the number of applications. The city’s childcare and preschool education department chief, Takahiro Sashihara, said, “Even if this is limited to children aged 3 or older, people wanting to leave their children at day care centers will increase if it’s free. I believe making childcare free will have considerable impact.”Speech