The story of a woman working at a private child care center in Aichi Prefecture, who was reprimanded for getting pregnant before it was her "turn" as dictated by the head of the child care center, has garnered broad public attention. The child care worker and her husband apologized to the child care center director, but the woman was chided by her boss for "selfishly breaking the rules."
The case came to light in a letter the woman's 28-year-old husband wrote to the Mainichi Shimbun, published in the Feb. 28 Japanese morning edition's "Otoko no kimochi" (A man's feelings) section. At this particular child care center, the director had set up "shifts" for when the female staff could get married and pregnant. The incident shed light on the labor conditions of child care providers, who in the shadow of the more well-known issue of long child care waitlists, cannot even have their own children with peace of mind.
The response to the letter was overwhelming. Various views were shared on the internet including, "There is no future for a society that cannot simply be happy for a new life," and "The work of a child care provider is demanding but the pay is low. Day care staff cannot continue their jobs if they make considerations for the selfish demands of the parents of the children they care for."
Private broadcasters picked up the story on their infotainment shows. On one program, businesswoman and economic commentator Kazuyo Katsuma declared that the case was one of a clear violation of human rights. Meanwhile, writer Kurumi Tachibana expressed her understanding toward the child care center's policy, saying, "If someone at a female-dominated workplace gets pregnant during her 'off schedule,' her colleagues bear the brunt of it since they have to make up for the missing person's workload."
According to Yuichi Murayama, who heads Hoiku kenkyujo (Child care research institute) comprising those who are involved in child care services, setting the order in which child care providers can get married or pregnant is not uncommon at child care centers. "It happens against a backdrop of people avoiding child care as a profession, due to its low wages and long hours, and the shortage of staff that results from that," he says. "The system in which each individual child care provider accumulated experience over many years has collapsed, bringing down the quality of child care. Determining child care providers' turns for when they can have children could be interpreted as a way for them to build experience over a long span of time without having to quit their jobs."
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's statistics for 2017 show that the average child care provider is 35.8 years old, has worked continuously for 7.7 years, and earns a monthly wage of 229,000 yen -- 104,000 yen lower than the average monthly wage across all professions.
Municipal governments provide private child care centers with operation funds calculated on the basis of conditions set by the central government, including the number of children and their ages. Child care staff's wages come from that funding. Child care providers with more experience are given higher wages than the others, and the rest of the money is spread thinly among the many younger, less experienced staff. The government is touting plans to raise child care providers' wages, "but," Murayama says, "how the money is distributed is left up to the center directors, so a total rise in wages does not guarantee that each child care staffer will see that reflected in their pay."
Child care providers have long workdays, and they do not have the freedom to take long holidays. At times, they are forced to work on the weekends. According to Murayama, it's taken for granted in the industry that child care workers dedicate the daytime to providing child care, and tend to other kinds of work, such as compiling documents and preparing for events, on overtime.
The man who wrote the letter in question told the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview that although he and his wife apologized to the director of the child care center, they were told that his wife would not be permitted to take time off for getting married.
"Even if child care workers have to work overtime, if they could raise their pay, and offer different working conditions that make it easier for postnatal workers, I think more people would be willing to become child care workers and stay at their jobs," he said.
Toko Shirakawa, a journalist who is well versed in the issue of Japan's declining birthrate, says that setting the order in which workers can get pregnant happens not just at child care centers, but in other workplaces where woman comprise the majority of the staff.
A 26-year-old woman from the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka who works at a cosmetics-related company says that last year, she was told by a female supervisor at work that she would be allowed to have a child when she was about 35 years old. A document mapping out childbirth and child-rearing schedules for the woman and her 22 female colleagues was distributed by email, which came with the warning that "work gets backed up if four or more people take time off at the same time. Selfish behavior will be subject to punishment."
The woman, who is now in her second year of marriage and has fertility issues, said, "I already have trouble getting pregnant. How are they going to take responsibility if I put off getting pregnant and lose my chances to have children altogether?"
"Even when pregnancy rules are not strictly enforced, women are inclined to refrain from getting pregnant at the same time as their female colleagues who take maternity or child care leave, because they don't want to cause trouble to their other colleagues," explained journalist Shirakawa. She added, "Japanese companies fail to take into consideration the possibility of female employees giving childbirth and raising children when creating their management plans."
Below is the letter that was sent to the Mainichi Shimbun and published on Feb. 28:
Eight months into our marriage, in January of this year, we found out that my wife was pregnant. My wife, who is a child care provider, appeared glum and anxious over the news. The director at the child care center where she works had determined the order in which workers could get married or pregnant, and apparently there was an unspoken rule that one must not take their "turn" before a senior staff member. My wife and I went together to apologize. "We're sorry we got pregnant," we said.
The director grudgingly accepted our apology, but since the next day, has been chiding my wife with harsh words, such as, "How could you so selfishly break the rules?" My wife feels guilty thinking about the hard labor conditions of her colleagues. I am fully aware that we are at fault for not planning well. But who benefits from having their "turn" to have children dictated, and following those rules? Child care providers sacrifice their own children to care for the children of others. It is a noble profession that nurtures children who will forge the future of this country. I respect my wife for her commitment to her profession, and continue to encourage her. The conditions of those working to nurture and care for children are evidence of a backward country.