April 28th, 2010
06:23 AM GMT
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Tokyo, Japan – As a producer for CNN International, I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world to cover important, yet adrenaline-filled events. I’ve been around exploding IEDs, mobs demanding political equity and witnessed the global meltdown of the world’s second largest economy.

Yet putting my baby into day care in Tokyo was the toughest competition I ever went through in my life. Child care facilities for small infants are called hoikuens (Nurturing Garden) in Japan. They are the MUST item for any working mother in Japan where hiring nannies is a near-impossibility.

The cost is prohibitive in this culture, where domestic assistance is considered a jaw-dropping luxury. Public or government-subsidized hoikuens are relatively affordable at about US$600-800 a month (more affordable depending on your income level) with reliable caretakers. Not being able to get a spot in a hoikuen means financial suicide, or giving up your job to stay home with your baby.

After the first few months of my maternity leave with my newborn Anjin, I picked up the phone and started making calls to find a day care center. I was scheduled to return to work and absolutely needed help. A few phone calls were enough to realize that I was facing a monumental crisis. I could not find a single day care with an opening for my son!

One popular private day care in my neighborhood told me they were booked up to TWO years ahead. Yes, some clever working women book day care as soon as conception. But I was a slow turtle. It was well before Christmas when I realized this crisis. Japan’s government estimates 46,000 children are on waiting lists to get into day care. I did not have time to be 46,001. I had to find a day care, any day care, before April when I was scheduled to return to work.

I had a new assignment, perhaps the most pressing of my career. The competition is tough for public day care and you must convince the ward office that you are desperate, or you go to the back of the line. In the Setagaya area of Tokyo where I live, the ward office handles the placement of babies to day care and they have a point system to chart your desperation.

My husband Richard and I both work full time, which gave us 50 points each, equaling 100 points. I will be just out of maternity leave – another 5 points. If you are a single mother, you get another 20 points, if you receive social security, another 10 points. My single mother friend advised me to go to the ward office and show up with a desperate face and a sob letter. I did that, toting my adorable new born in my Baby Bjorn baby carrier. I did everything I could think of. We prayed and crossed our fingers to win this day care lottery.

We waited, and waited, and waited. My return date to work loomed, as I feared the prospect of sticking my child under my desk and towing him around while coordinating live shots for my reporter. After a month, we got the news. Our point score, because we had no child care options, put us barely over the minimum required and we got a day care slot.

The day care center wasn’t close to our home. The one next to our home, a really great day care center with a big garden, was really popular - we were 23rd out of 56 applicants. But a day care center about 15 minutes away got us in - we snagged the very last spot.

To say my husband and I were relieved would be a gross understatement. Some mothers describe entry into a day care in Japan as being more difficult than getting into Japan’s top university. We were, however, angry for the hassle and stress that we went through, along with all the working parents in Japan. It’s an unnecessary competition, which the government has for years been promising to eliminate for the sake of making it easier to raise children.

The government says we need more children, i.e. a future working force. By 2050, 40 percent of Japan will be over the age of 65. But if the nation needs to have more children, it should not discourage parents to have more children.

Working women are forced to give up careers after getting pregnant, anticipating trouble if they continue working. In April 2009 when we finally took our nine-month-old Anjin to his first day of day care, tens of thousands of other children, along with their mothers, were left out. At the beginning of 2010, 46,000 children were in the waiting queue. Behind them, I can see many faces of women desperately willing to work, earning salaries, and hey, paying the national tax as a result.

My mother was the very first working woman in her company back in the 1960s. My parents went through a back-breaking effort to find anyone who could take care of me while she was at the office. The 1960’s was a time when all working mothers in Japan put together a movement to push the government to increase day care centers for working mothers.

The slogan was: “Create as many child care centers as post boxes,” so that anyone who wants to work can put their children in a safe place. Four decades later, her daughter is struggling with exactly the same issue as she did. This simply shows how little things have improved for working mothers in this country.

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soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Kim

    The situation in Zurich, Switzerland is not much better – when I applied to the local "krippe" (kindergarden) I was told that my daugther was number 60 on the list, which also had a 2 year waiting time. All my colleagues had similar issues, and the only up side of the down side in the economy, is that with some people losing their jobs – some perviously secured places opened up.

    Alas – our battles are not over simply because we have a solution now, with a strict 6pm pick up time, and complicated rules that require an extra day at home with no fever after being sick – topped by companies that do not cater to working mothers – our careers have all slide back, and are likely to remain there. Especially once our children start school, as childen are still expected to come home for lunch at noon (together with their father).

    Bring on the 1950's.

    April 28, 2010 at 7:53 am |
  2. totscarmelo

    Boy oh boy !! Are we lucky here in the Philippines when it comes to matters like these....

    April 28, 2010 at 8:09 am |
  3. lisaweyn

    Mothers are important and should be given the utmost respect. companies should find a way to accommodate their needs. After all the children they raise are our future.

    April 28, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  4. Sharon

    Hey this sounds like a great business opportunity for anyone with a big heart to take care of kids in kenya baby day care is not an issue because people have capitalised on it.am glad you all found solutions.

    April 28, 2010 at 8:38 am |
  5. Mr. A

    There's little need for daycare in Japan! You need to look at the latest statistics on women working in Japan.

    I believe it was a poll in 2004 that stated roughly 38% of women from 18-35 year old do not work.

    Laws were passed in the 80s to give women equal rights, but due to tradition women are still paid less than men, and are used to perform remedial tasks.

    Unfortunately, we can debate this all we want, but the average Japanese women is content with this, and feels to need to change this. So let her stay home, take care of the kid while the husband works himself to death paying off the house mortgage.

    April 28, 2010 at 9:00 am |
  6. William Ishiwata

    Yokohama was the same. We both had to commute, my wife is a MD and I was working in Tokyo. So basically both of us were out of the house for 14 hours per day. We applied to the ward office and were told that it was impossible to get a space at a city run centre and we had to try the private ones. There was only one near our house which did not even have an outside play area. So we went back to the ward office to appeal, we had to go all the way up to the director or urban planning to complain about the lack of daycare spaces. I said it was stupid to allow high rise condominium construction without planning for the families that would live in them. We were told that the land prices were prohibitive and the city could not purchase land to create new daycare facilities and were depending on private sector to build buildings and then the city would license those daycares. Seem odd? The other problem is that the private sector does not care about working women..... Too many major changes in thought are required.... For us though we were able to secure a spot at the place down the road from our house, very lucky, there were 137 kids in a facility designed for less than 100 though...

    Opposite problem exists down here in Kyushu now though, loads of places in day cares, families have 2 or more kids. Totally different lifestyle.

    April 28, 2010 at 9:06 am |
  7. Yumiko

    I worked both in Japan and in France as a working mother and I can totally feel for what you had gone through.

    I think Japanese companies (not only the Japanese government) have to pitch into making this situation better. I tried to convince my company to set up a daycare, the answer was "no, there is not enough demand" (are you sure? I knew so many who were force to take maternity leave because they could not find any daycare). My mother came to live with us (from far away prefecture) so that I can continue my job. I feel sorry for my dad who had to live on his own... There's just too much to give up for women in Japan to work.

    I live in France now and the situation is much better here. There are tons of daycare! There's even space for children whose parents don't even work!! In general, people here work much less :) and families eat dinner together every day... which is definitely not the case in Japan. Most men take 1-2 weeks off work when they have their newborns. In Japan, some companies do have "maternity leave/vacation" system for male workers, too, but I don't know anyone who actually made use of this system: they are scared to take such vacation as they think that it might affect their careers.

    In Japan, work comes first, not family... even though you don't believe in this (that you think family is the most important), you should not let your company know that (or at least, people believe that you should act that way if you want a good career). Each company needs to change this trend ( 風潮[Fuchou]) or nothing is going to improve.

    April 28, 2010 at 9:09 am |
  8. Morgan, Deborah

    A few years ago I figured out this problem from comments of my students...and worrying about my own grandchild's care when my daughter went by to work. How can we encourage young people and Grandma's, with alot of time, to want to go into the childcare and educational field? How can today's Moms and Grandmas bring political pressure on the "elder men" in Tokyo understand?

    We know the problem! Now let's work together to make a solution happen.

    J-ma

    April 28, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  9. svit

    isnt is possible in japan to open private day cares?
    might be a good business if so many people are in need...

    April 28, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  10. Anne

    The same in Germany, it is very difficult to find a day care for our children I was extremely lucky to get a space for my son and this only because I had registered him on the waiting list as soon as he was born. There are over 20 children on the waiting list at the moment... And the day care open hours are terrible... 7h00 to 16h00 and on Friday's till 14h00...so I couldn't go back to work full time....lucky me my company did accept that I would only start part time. Hopefully things will change in the future...

    April 28, 2010 at 10:18 am |
  11. Andrew

    My daughter attended a "hoikuen" just outside Osaka. We paid about about half what is mentioned in the article. At one point, the price fell to virtually nothing. You're wondering how that happened aren't you? Well, my wife divorced me, and suddenly her cost of living changed drastically. Not only did "hoikuen" costs drop, my now ex-wife can ride the bus for the inner-city buses for 100 yen, and she also gets a substantial tax break....and those are just the perks that I know of. She also got her "no-fault" divorce, and as there is no such thing as "joint custody" in Japan, and I didn't want to deal with the biased legal system, I had to negotiate my own visitation rights and child support payments with the very woman who wanted to divorce me.

    I will say that "hoikuens" in Japan are absolutely fantastic, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. They cooked meals for the children, and the environment there seemed very loving.

    April 28, 2010 at 10:26 am |
  12. Arun

    I share the same experience as the author.
    Day care in japan in non-existant (well i am talking in relative terms it is probably one day care every 1000 babies or something of that sort. My wife was working before we moved Tokyo and its been 3 yrs now. she wants to get back to work and but we cant put our kid in day care. Well she started kinder garden now!

    It is same with hospitals, it is again non existant in relative term. probably only 1 bed per 10000 ppl in Tokyo (I am not basing on any actual statistics) if you have to admit someone for any emergency no beds are avaialble. Atleast you need to go around 10 hospital before you can find one or the person dies ( it seems it has happened few times, and was on local papers ).

    Having said that, it is a fantastic place to live if you are a healthy single or married with no kids. Else you need to learn to keep your expectations low and make some life style adjustments.

    April 28, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  13. Jeanette Thompson

    It is clear that there is a crisis within the childcare industry in both Japan and Switzerland, and I would imagine many other communities across the globe. It is a great shame that all the University Educated and career minded women in those countries cannot come together to create a business for themselves which could incorporate child care training for parents and nursery facilities for all these children. This seems to me to be a missed opportunity. Instead of bemoaning the fact that there is no one to look after the children, more women should be setting up their own nurseries as a business venture. A sort of franchise within their communities.

    April 28, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  14. julka

    encouraged by comments from Switzerland and Germany, I venture to submit a note from Poland:

    in large cities in newly developed areas it might be close to impossible to find a place in the creche (called "żłobek") and on the first application date, fathers take strategic positions in the que in the evening of the preceding day. The worst-case scenario is that you find a place in the creche which is a few kilometres away, but eventually you should be able get it. In public institutions the monthly fee is ca 100 PZN (compared to the average gross salary of 3.500 PZN).

    Baby-sitting is quite common. Female students and female pensioners are the usual job-takers. Full-time care sets you back some 2.000 PZN per month, though in most cases this is a part-time job.

    Grandmothers is the third popular option, but with people getting more and more mobile, it is increasingly difficult to have a grandmother living in the same city.

    Having said this, I must admit with some shame there are still many mothers in Poland who believe their place is by their babies. Embarassed to be one of them.

    April 28, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  15. Aya U

    Daycare problem is really huge in Tokyo Japan especially when cost of living is still among the highest in the world despite the deflation. Majority of the times, both of parents have to work to pay for place to live and save a few pennies. What is $150 per month per child really? 3 boxes of diapers and 2 cans of formulas? As a parent, it will not even cover 1 week cost for ONE child.

    April 28, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  16. wyzer22

    You pepole think it's your right to breed like hampsters and then cry when the entire world doesn't come to a stand still to accommodate you.

    April 28, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  17. Ray

    Does anyone else notice at the beginning of the video the ratio of children to staff? I don't know about others who are complaining about Japan's system - but it seems comparing Japan to other countries is unfair. The ratio of care-givers to kids seems fairly high based on the video - if Japan sets such a high standard, then no wonder there are few places. Is it this high in other countries? I don't recall...but then again, that was a long long time ago. :-)

    Maybe the solution is to lower the standards? I wonder how many parents would accept that? Easy to raise standards; if they are already high, almost impossible to lower them.

    April 28, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
  18. Kelly

    God shall help

    April 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  19. Mexi

    What's the purpose of having babies if you KNOW that you are working and do NOT have the time to care for them YOURSELVES. Why would you even want to leave your new baby(s) with someone else.......PURE SELFISHNESS ! Your baby is human, not some puppy dog that you leave with strangers to babysit day in and out. Stop whining.....stay at home with your OWN babies or just simply DON'T birth them until you can.
    Think about the innocent babies for once, they don't need some daycare worker.....they NEED their mother !

    April 28, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  20. Ahuchaogu David

    Its most unfortunate that inadequate day care facilities has become a recurrent decimal especially in a developed country such as Japan and some other countries. Is it not a paradox for the government to talk about the need for an increased labour force without making adequate provision for the newly born? Please can somebody tell me the criteria for establishing a private daycare in Japan or Germany?

    April 28, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
  21. shonan

    Sounds like a great business to get into. Do you need a license, or having raised kids of your own, should be good enough. Would Japanese women bring their children to a gaijin male? I know how to change a doctor, take care of health and sickness, and play etc. just wondering... plus they could learn English for free at the same time.

    April 29, 2010 at 5:59 am |
  22. Tiki

    I just went through this myself - my son was on the waiting list to get into public hoikuen for 3 years!
    I'm just so thankful that he FINALLY got in!
    I really can't express how frustrating and stress of an ordeal the past three years have been as a working woman dealing with the lack of childcare in Japan.
    The Japanese government needs to stop waffling on about how they want people to have more kids and hurry up and spend the tax that we pay on not just lining their old pockets but making the living conditions better for the families and people who pay that tax.
    I am very much scared off having another child in Japan after the nightmare that we just went through to get my son into day care.
    I don't want to have to go through that again!!!!
    I will be leaving Japan to have another kid due to the poor conditions for working women here!
    No wonder the birthrate in Japan is declining.

    April 29, 2010 at 6:44 am |
  23. Medea Hirota

    I had the opposite experience in Japan. I went back to work when my first child was 6 months old, which is very rare in Japan (working women get 1 year od leave). I didn't realize I had to apply the previous November for care for the following April. The city hall where I applied was very helpful making up for my mistake. My son was accommodated in my first choice of hoikuen. The price was about $500 per month including 1 meal (possibility of breakfast as well) and 2 snacks. Diapers would have been included as well if I had wanted my son to use disposables. They accommodated my request for cloth diapers though.
    I was the first working woman in my company to have to put her child in hoikuen. There were some issues as if my child was sick I'd have to go pick him up immediately, they expect grandparents to do that. My mother-in-law works, though, and that is an extremely rare situation. From my situation the company decided to create an in-house daycare. The municipal government gives the daycare a grant every year. The company daycare started with 2 kids and now has 25, and it is the number one reason new recruits last year chose my company. It helps with staff retention, it enables parents to be more productive, and is up to professional standards so parents don't have to worry at all.
    There are excellent benefits for the company, even in this economy. They have a much higher rate of staff retention. 5 years ago only 3 in 10 fulltime women continued to work after their 7th year in the
    I was offered a position in the US last summer, but decided to stay in Japan mainly because the daycare situation is better. Daycare here is run by professionals, with a higher rate of carers to children. The thought of putting my kids in a dayhome run by a someone with no qualifications where they are fed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for twice or three times the price was honestly frightening after my good experience in Japan. They toilet trained my two kids, and they ensure that kids aren't picky by offering a variety of foods no parent could prepare at home by themselves. I cannot say enough good things about daycare in Japan.

    April 30, 2010 at 1:52 am |
  24. Matt Apple

    Children also need fathers as well as mothers, and fathers as well as mothers ought to be involved in both day care center selection and daily care of children. That's why I chose to go on Child Care Leave this year, as the father of a one year old. It's a first in Japan, where men typically expect women to do all the child-care raising. Men who have commented on this article that children need their mothers are correct about that, but children also need their fathers, and both mothers and father have the right to work equally and share in child-raising equally. Modern Japan is not the only country whose population has still not come to grips with human rights regarding children.

    April 30, 2010 at 7:42 am |
  25. Robert

    Day cares in Japan are excellent and the prices are reasonable. However, to get into a child care, like the author said, is very difficult. I still think that she had it easy since I and my wife are in the same situation as her and her husband. However, we could not get our daughter in since single moms (there are quite a few in Okinawa) supersede us.

    So, I and my wife decided that we should start a day care and get it city sponsored (that is were the money is) but trying to get the requirements to meet city standards from the city(s) was near impossible. I am not talking about meeting the requirements is impossible, getting the requirements was impossible. We even had a private day care owner try to help us with this endeavor but the city(s) constantly blocked our attempts to gather the requirements to start a day care. Thier only repeated comment was that we need the U.S. equavalent of 1.5 million dollars to get started.

    Why would I start a day care if I had 1.5 million dollars? How about a McDonalds or Family Mart or Lawsen or...

    Why should women in Japan have children when both parents have to work to survive but the government hamstrings the parents? Then spit in your face by giving you a child allowance but increase your salary and property taxes more than your child allowance is worth!!!

    May 1, 2010 at 12:47 am |
  26. Gladie

    Here in the US 16 years ago..I paid $200 a month for day care. My friend is paying about $400 a month now. Can't Japanese parents hire a live-nanny from another country like the Philippines and the cost would significantly be reduced? Plus, the baby is at home and you get house cleaning too! :)

    May 5, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  27. Nancy Pittman

    Are you kidding? You just sound like a first time mom, with no clue. In the US, it's no easier to find day baby care or a preschool for that matter. Most decent places have the same 2 year waiting list, and you also don't have any social welfare government holding your hand, trying to find you a spot. Most yuppie professionals like yourself, use relatives, work opposite shifts with their spouse, or find some sucker friend willing to watch your kid. What were you thinking? And you are too spoiled.

    May 6, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
  28. Wanjiku

    Being a citizen in a third world country has its a downside but child care is a definite plus. For less than US$100 I can get fantastic nanny who would be one of the much better paid ones. I really can't get my head around to how families in the developed world cope. It almost seems like career suicide to have a baby, here having a baby is a mere blip.

    May 13, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  29. bob Jones

    its a simple choice – more money or your baby – you can never replace those early years of raising and breastfeeding your baby which is the most important thing a baby requires. I think the choice is a simple one – choose your baby and dont let someone else raise your child. you can always make money, but you cant always raise your baby or go back and replace those important early years

    May 17, 2010 at 4:34 am |
  30. XenoLair

    Sad to hear. Where I come from its easy to get daycare – and its free if you have more than 1 child.

    May 20, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
  31. Cathy

    Am I correct that the author had close to NINE months of maternity leave?

    May 24, 2010 at 1:22 am |
  32. goddog

    With all the unemployed and highly educated people here in Japan, you would think the govt. would open up a ton of day care centers and hire the unemployed. But then again, Hatoyama is the PM and he is useless.

    May 24, 2010 at 1:29 am |
  33. Caroline Bryant

    baby care takes much dedication and patience. it is really not that easy to take care of babies.."'

    June 28, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  34. Angel Baker

    i love to care for my baby and i think baby care is a full time job";.

    August 29, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
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