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Parents furious over Abe gov't's about-face on free day care service promise

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces on Sept. 25, 2017, that he would dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election. (Pool photo)

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come under fire after a plan surfaced within the government to exclude unauthorized day care centers from the free child care framework, even though he promised to make all early childhood education and care free of charge during the October general election.

Working parents have expressed their anger and disappointment at the government's plan via social media. A 41-year-old man from Tokyo's Setagaya Ward who takes part in a citizens' group tackling the problem of long waiting lists for day care services tweeted his dismay, saying that the disparity between those who were able to get their children into authorized day care facilities and those who couldn't would widen. His tweet has been retweeted some 4,000 times.

"The Abe Cabinet maintains unwavering determination to end the day care waiting list," the prime minister said during a news conference on Sept. 25 when he announced that he would dissolve the House of Representatives and call a snap general election. Only two weeks after the ruling coalition's landslide victory in the election on Oct. 22, however, the government is trying to exclude non-authorized day care centers from free child care services. Its rationale behind the move apparently is that, by making non-authorized services free of charge, it could be seen as if the government is promoting such child care centers.

The group that the Setagaya man participates in is calling for an increased number of day care facilities rather than making them free.

"It's already a fierce battle to get into an authorized day care center. If unauthorized facilities are excluded from the charge-free services, it will be all-out war (among parents) to have their children get into an authorized one," the man warns.

A 39-year-old mother who sends her 1-year-old child to a day care facility accredited by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government under its own standards could not contain her anger when the Mainichi Shimbun interviewed her on Nov. 6.

"I was stressed out about finding a day care center during my pregnancy and barely got accepted at an unauthorized facility (under the Child Welfare Act) after being rejected by authorized ones," she laments. "Is this supposed to be my fault?"

While day care facilities recognized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government under its own standards are technically "unauthorized" facilities, local bodies cover part of the fees. These day care services have helped the state's measures to end the waiting list problem as children who have been admitted to such day care centers are not counted as those on the lists.

A representative from the metropolitan government expressed concern over making only authorized child care facilities free, saying that it would widen the gap of the financial burden between the parents who send their children to authorized places and those sending their children to facilities accredited under the metropolitan government standards.

Norihiko Fukuda, mayor of the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kawasaki, revealed concern over the Abe government's plan during a regular news conference on Nov. 7. He underscored the need to make sure that parents who choose to send their children to day care centers accredited by the city under its own standards will not face a heavier burden.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were roughly 3.11 million children aged 3 to 5 in Japan as of April 2016. Of those, some 1.45 million were sent to child care facilities authorized under the Child Welfare Act, while about 78,000 were enrolled in unauthorized places.

Kana Takeda, a senior consultant at Nomura Research Institute, raises questions about the Abe government's policy in light of fairness. She says, "People could opt out from even applying to authorized day care facilities if they feel like they wouldn't be accepted in the first place."

Can this anticlimax of the Abe administration's promise be tolerated? Masayasu Kitagawa, former Mie governor and adviser at Waseda University Research Institute of Manifesto, does not think so. This kind of outcome will "lose voters' faith in elections and campaign pledges," he says.

"A party should include issues that have gained consent from its members in its campaign pledges after thorough intraparty discussions. But the Liberal Democratic Party's policy promises during the last election just listed its wishes," Kitagawa points out. "A debate (within the government) over realistic issues (regarding making child care free of charge) must have emerged after the election."

Political analyst Atsuo Ito describes the government's about-face, "It's like you go to a store after seeing a flyer and they are selling different things." He says it's crucial for voters to check if campaign promises have been kept and reflect that in the next election.

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