National and local governments are struggling to keep up with growing demand for day care services, which is leaving more children on waiting lists.
According to figures released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on Sept. 2, the number of children on waiting lists for day care spaces as of April 1 this year was 23,553, up 386 from the previous year and the second increase in two straight years as demand outpaces supply.
Meanwhile, children who do not meet the official requirements for spots on waiting lists but are in a similar situation are almost three times as numerous, at 67,354, up 8,293 from the previous year. The sharp increase in demand for child cares is especially pronounced in urban areas, and is the result of more households with two working parents.
In municipalities with many children on day care waiting lists, efforts are continuing on a trial-and-error basis to expand the number of spaces.
Tokyo's Suginami Ward had 136 children on day care waiting lists as of spring this year, a three-fold increase compared to the previous year. In April the ward declared that it was in a child-raising state of emergency, and in May it announced a plan to set up child care facilities in 11 places such as ward parks. However, while construction of these facilities has begun, there is deep-rooted opposition from local residents who don't want day cares near their homes. In urban areas like this where it is hard to find space, the construction of new day care facilities will not go quickly.
The city of Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, which has 27 children on waiting lists, required its public day cares to have one child care worker per three children. However, in March this year the national government called on the city to temporarily relax its standards as an emergency measure to create more spaces, so the city switched to the national minimum standard of one worker per six children.
"It would have been good if we could have gone on without lowering our standards, but we measured it against the problem of having children on waiting lists," says a city representative.
Tokyo's Nerima Ward, which has 166 children on day care waiting lists, plans expansions at eight of 18 facilities in the ward after the national government expanded the maximum number of children allowed at small-scale day cares from 19 to 22. However, these changes run counter to the idea that day cares are supposed to offer the benefits of care for children in small groups.
Also, the welfare ministry has included increased base salaries for child care workers plus the appointment of coordinators to support the establishment of new day cares in its draft budget requests for next fiscal year.
Meanwhile, it has been left to municipal governments who they include or don't include on their official child care waiting lists, such as children of parents on child care leave, parents seeking places at specific facilities, or parents who have stopped seeking jobs to care for their child. The welfare ministry plans to review the definition of "children on day care waiting lists" within fiscal 2016. It is possible that, after a redefinition, the waiting list figure could climb and yet more measures will become necessary.