Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced the postponement of a government goal of eliminating the lengthy waiting lists for authorized day care centers by up to three years, pushing back the deadline for the target to the end of March 2021.
As of April last year, there were more than 23,500 children who were on waiting lists for day care spaces across the country. The government had initially aimed to eradicate the problem by March 2018, but the figure has since shown no sign of diminishing.
In response, Prime Minister Abe announced that the government will seek to create child care spaces for 220,000 children over a three-year period starting April 2018 to eliminate the waiting lists. Furthermore, the government also aims to secure day care slots for an additional 100,000 children by March 2023 to facilitate women's participation in the workforce.
Behind the embarrassing deferral of the government goal lies the central and local governments' lack of foresight into demand for day care services and their failure to take sufficient measures. The Abe government needs to investigate the cause of the delay and work out effective solutions.
The waiting lists for child care centers are especially longer in municipalities in Tokyo and other urban areas, with 1- and 2-year-olds accounting for over 70 percent of children on those lists.
Some municipalities have long strived to boost the number of day care centers in their jurisdictions. It has been pointed out, however, that local governments have a hard time reducing the number of children on waiting lists for day care openings because the more such facilities emerge, the greater latent demand for them would be stimulated.
The Abe government has promoted women's empowerment and may well have anticipated a shortage of day care spaces with an increase in working women amid labor shortages across Japan. Some local governments are said to have made an inaccurate estimate for day care demands without thoroughly studying mothers' willingness to work.
As facilities are required to employ at least one day care worker per six children aged 1 and 2, it is necessary to secure a far more number of day care staff for that age group compared to 3-year-olds, for whom one worker is enough under law to take care of 20 children.
Some municipalities even offer such incentives as premium wages and rent subsidies to day care workers to secure sufficient staff numbers, while there are other municipalities that are forced to reduce the capacity of newly opened child care centers due to staff shortages.
In order to address the status quo, the central government launched this past April measures to improve the treatment of day care staff by raising their wages by an average 6,000 yen a month and giving up to a 40,000 yen premium in wages depending on their skills and experience. However, these measures are believed to generate only limited results.
Another challenge is the harsh working conditions for day care staff, which have prompted many to leave the job early in their career. In Japan, there are at least 700,000 people who hold a day care worker's license but are not working in the field.
Unless the government gives its all to boost the accommodation of younger children by increasing the number of such facilities as small-scale day care centers and child care spaces inside business establishments, the Abe administration's pledge to eliminate the waiting lists would once again turn out to be an empty promise.