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Opposition presses PM Abe over swelling day care waiting lists

Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki, center, speaks for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, in response to Democratic Party member Shiori Yamao, left, after she sought a response from the prime minister regarding day care waiting lists, at the House of Representatives Budget Committee on Feb. 17, 2017. (Mainichi)

An opposition Democratic Party (DP) member needled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a Feb. 17 House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting about long waiting lists for day care, a year after a blog post brought the issue to the forefront of public debate.

In February last year, an anonymous blog post reading, "We were turned down for day care. Die Japan!!!" stirred sympathy for parents searching for day care spots for their children.

DP member Shiori Yamao, who brought up this blog post at the Budget Committee in February last year, said at the Feb. 17 meeting, "One year has passed, and this year I again hear the cries of those saying they have been turned down for day care." She went on to quote cases, saying one mother had said, "I applied to 20 places but was turned down," and, "I have two daughters but have been turned down four years in a row." She asked Abe, "When will you make it zero?" referring to the number of children waiting for day care spots.

Abe responded, "At the same time as we have increased capacity, over 900,000 women have started working under this administration, and this has raised demand" for day care. He said that reducing waiting lists to zero is "unfortunately going to be very difficult."

When pressed by Yamao about whether he would step back from the pledge to eliminate waiting lists, Abe said, "I certainly do not mean that we are going to give up on this goal. We have to work hard toward it," adding, "The reason that the number of working women grew more than expected is because (this administration's) economic policies were very effective." Abe also shot back with his often-repeated argument that day care workers get better pay now than they did under the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led administration.

During questioning on the issue last year, the prime minister responded, "There is no way to check whether (what was written in the blog) really happened," inviting heavy criticism, and the debate this year was once again heated. When Abe was unable to respond immediately on when he expected day care waiting list to be eliminated, Yamao raised her voice, saying, "Do you not know if you don't ask bureaucrats? If you were thinking about it seriously, you would always have it in your mind." The prime minister responded, "Don't get so excited. Asking an unannounced question, then acting as if you won when I don't answer immediately is far from being a rich debate."

Yamao suggested that the definition of a child waiting for a day care spot be unified across the country. Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki responded, "We will consider how to survey (children on waiting lists) and aim to gather data within this fiscal year."

A 34-year-old woman in Tokyo's Taito Ward who works full-time and whose husband also works, tried to get her 5-month-old son into 10 authorized day care facilities but was turned down by all of them. She has also applied to multiple non-authorized facilities but has not yet received a response.

"(Abe) doesn't feel that this is a crisis. It is not a priority for him," she said after seeing the prime minister's Diet comments regarding waiting lists on TV.

An existing government plan was to solve the problem by adding day care capacity for 500,000 children between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2017. After the 2016 blog post gained public notice last year, the plan had "emergency measures" added to it, such as expanding the capacity of small day care centers. Furthermore, this fiscal year saw the creation of a system to add public aid for day care services at companies for their employees, and a monthly pay boost of about 6,000 yen for day care workers.

However, in urban areas, where demand is greatest, it is hardest to find space to build day cares, and there have been repeated cases of new day cares being delayed or canceled due to local resident opposition. There have also been day cares unable to take in the number of children they expected due to a lack of staff. As of April 2016, there were 23,553 children on waiting lists across Japan, the second year in a row that the number rose.

Mika Ikemoto, a chief researcher at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd., says, "It is a very good thing that there are more women working. There are still things we can do without insisting on authorized day care facilities, such as small-scale day care services and making more use of preschools."

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