Will More Day Care Help Boost Japan's Sluggish Economy? | KERA News

Will More Day Care Help Boost Japan's Sluggish Economy?

Jan 5, 2016
Originally published on January 5, 2016 1:23 pm

Japan has made progress recently in getting more women to join the workforce. The latest numbers show a greater percentage of Japanese women work outside the home than American women. But for a rapidly aging and shrinking population, that progress may not be fast enough.

One of the biggest reasons Japanese women choose to stay home is the lack of child care options. As of the latest count, in April 2015, about 23,000 Japanese children were on waiting lists for day care. Unable to find other options, many parents give up the hunt.

Hato Poppo Nursery School in Tokyo's Setagaya ward takes children ranging in age from 3 months to kindergartners. It's one of Japan's highly coveted, subsidized day care centers for families of all income levels. Children are dropped off as early as 6 a.m. and stay as late as 8 at night because of their parents' 12-hour workdays.

"There's a huge demand for day care and kindergartens. The number of day cares are increasing, but slowly," says director Takayuki Yoshizawa.

Parents face long odds just to get their child into a center like this. Reika Hattori considers herself lucky that she found her preschooler a spot in a center.

"In total, I applied to maybe 20 to 30 to get into one," she says.

It meant a gauntlet of applications and lists — competition for slots so tough that it has its own name, hokatsu, an abbreviation for "actively searching for a day care." She says her fellow moms often wanted to keep working after having babies, but "some of them couldn't get back because of the nursery school, because they can't find any nursery school."

In fast-aging Japan, where 26 percent of the population is 65 or older, resolving the child care crisis is now at the center of economic policy. Recognizing that keeping young, educated women in the workforce is crucial to Japan's economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made "womenomics" central to his economic revival plan. His pledge is to cut child care waiting lists to zero.

"They're about halfway to their goal, but at least there's been some progress on that front," says Kathy Matsui, the chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. She's a longtime advocate of gender diversity in Japan and is responsible for coining the term "womenomics" more than a decade ago.

The argument was simple but took a long time to take hold.

"If you could raise Japan's female labor participation rate to that of Japanese men," Matsui says, "then you could significantly lift the size of Japan's economy."

On the policy front, there's been movement in getting more women in the workforce. Abe's pledge to create 400,000 new day care slots by 2018 is being subsidized by the government, and Japanese parents are getting a "child allowance" as well, based on family income and number of children.

Matsui says women are still at a disadvantage because cultural attitudes are harder to change than policy.

"Even if you have the infrastructure and the support around you," she says, "there are questions from your family members about 'is it really appropriate for you to be raising a newborn or your infant child when you're not home full-time?' "

Japanese men do the lowest amount of household work in the developed world, a reflection that the East Asian nation still sees caretaking and household duties as women's domain.

For mom Reika Hattori, finding a day care slot was one win — but she says her husband sharing the load at home is the key to making her family work.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this story from Tokyo.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Japan has made some progress recently in getting more women to join the workforce. The latest numbers show more Japanese women work outside the home than American women. But for a rapidly aging and shrinking population, progress may not be happening fast enough. NPR's Elise Hu reports on one of the biggest reasons Japanese women chose to stay home.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: It's past dinnertime at a Japanese child care center in Tokyo's Setagaya ward. But because of their parents' 12-hour workdays, children still fill every classroom and play space here until as late as 8 at night. Through a translator, they invited me to play.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Through interpreter) If you want to play, there is toys there for you.

HU: Oh, thank you.

The children here at Hato-Poppo nursery school range from 3-month-old infants to kindergartners. It's one of Japan's highly-coveted subsidized day care centers for families of all income levels. Takayuki Yoshizawa is director.

TAKAYUKI YOSHIZAWA: (Through interpreter) There's a huge demand for day care and kindergartens. The number of day cares are increasing, but slowly.

HU: Parents face long odds just to get their child into a center like this. As of this spring, about 23,000 children in Tokyo were on day care waiting lists. Reika Hattori considers herself lucky that she found her preschooler a spot in the center.

REIKA HATTORI: In total, I applied for maybe 20 to 30.

HU: It meant a gauntlet of applications and lists, competition for slots so tough that it has its own name, hokatsu. She says her fellow moms often wanted to keep working after having babies.

HATTORI: Some of them couldn't get back because of the nursery school - because they can't find any nursery school.

HU: In fast-aging Japan, resolving the child care crisis is now at the center of economic policy. Recognizing that keeping young, educated women in the workforce is crucial to Japan's economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made, quote, "womenomics" central to his economic revival plan. His pledge is to cut child care waiting lists to zero.

KATHY MATSUI: They're about halfway to their goal, but at least there's been some progress on that front.

HU: Kathy Matsui is chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. She coined the term womenomics more than a decade ago and has long advocated for gender diversity in Japan.

MATSUI: If you could raise Japan's female labor participation rate to match that of Japanese men, you could significantly lift the size of Japan's economy.

HU: On the policy front, there's movement in getting more women in the workforce. But Matsui says they're still at a disadvantage because cultural attitudes are harder to change.

MATSUI: Even if you have the infrastructure and the support around you, there are questions from your family members about, is it really appropriate to be raising a newborn child, your baby, when you're not home full-time.

HU: Japanese men do the lowest amount of household work in the developed world, a reflection that the East Asian nation still sees caretaking and household duties as the women's domain. For mom Reika Hattori, finding a day care slot was one win. But she says her husband sharing the load at home...

HATTORI: Very important.

HU: Is how she's made things work. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.