The Japanese government faces a social welfare crisis that is unlike any other country in the world. As the cries for elderly car-giving homes are barely even heard – Japan has the highest percentage of people above 65 in the world – a new issue is coming to bear: a distinct shortage in public day care for children.
Japan subsidizes thousands of day care centers nationwide for families of all income levels, and caregivers go through rigorous exams in childcare that usually require two years of special schooling. But as the number of women who enter the work force is shooting up, the availability of public day care and a growing shortage of slots has created its own set of seemingly very real problems. Annually, Japanese mothers are forced into an annual competition for day care slots that is grueling enough to merit its own name, “hokatsu.” This process is said to be as stressful if not more as the notorious, insanely difficult job hunt endured by Japanese college students.
Ms. Ayaka Okumura is now a grizzled veteran of that day care campaign. She was confronted with the very real possibility that she might lose her management job – a position that had been so out of reach for women a generation ago – when she got pregnant. For months, the 30 year old mother-to-be trudged from one day care center to another, some public and some private, in what little time she could manage away from her job, putting her name on waiting lists that were sometimes more than 200 names long. While there is certainly no shortage of private nursery schools options in Tokyo, these can be ridiculously expensive, sometimes costing around 100,000 yen (approx. $1,075) a month to have two children in daycare.
By the time she gave birth to her daughter, Ayane, late last year, she had toured 44 sites in Tokyo. In desperation, she even scheduled a visit on her due date, but she had to cancel when she started getting contractions. “I’m going to lose my mind,” she said as she walked one day from a childcare center squeezed between two high-rises. “Why does finding day care have to be this difficult?”
This is the ultimate question for working would-be parents in Japan these days. And as evidenced by the slowly declining birth rate of the country, most couples would rather decide not to have children at all than go through the grueling process of screening for a day care center, even a government subsidized one.
As public nursery schools know they are in high demand, they are often very strict about entry requirements with the few slots that they have, giving preference to families with the worst financial situations first. Mothers are very often caught in a catch-22, they need daycare in order to work to make money to survive, but by having an income they are seen as low priority for these slots, and, in turn, now face losing their jobs. There have been instances where couples actually planned to get divorced in order to have a better chance of having their children get through the screening process.
Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to create new day care centers, but it is unclear today how much he can accomplish, given Japan’s other social welfare problem – the growing and politically active elderly population. Almost 70 percent of Japan’s social welfare spending is directed at people 65 or older, while less than 4 percent supports children and families, according to a government-affiliated research group. “It’s become a vicious cycle,” said Hiroki Komazaki, the founder of several nurseries. “We don’t invest in future generations, inevitably bringing on an aging society.”
[ via NY Times ]