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Free preschool, day care law rapped as treat for Japan's high-income earners

Children put food on their plates during lunchtime at a day care center in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, on May 8, 2019. (Mainichi/Eriko Horii)

TOKYO -- Japan's preschool education and day care services will be made free starting this coming October, following the passage of legal amendments by the Diet on May 10. The change spells some household budget relief for families with children, but guaranteeing the provision of quality child care services and eliminating waiting lists for spots remain serious challenges.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe boasts the amended Children and Child Rearing Support Act is "a significant step toward turning the social security system into one for all generations." His administration plans to divert additional revenue from the consumption tax, set to rise from 8% to 10% in October, to run the free early education and day care program.

But opposition parties blasted the government-sponsored bill before the vote on the measure at a House of Councillors plenary session on May 10. "Making preschool education and day care free means nothing for those who have nowhere to leave their children. The government should prioritize efforts to eliminate the long waiting lists for day care slots," said Hiroe Makiyama, an upper house member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).

The free program was advocated by Prime Minister Abe when he dissolved the House of Representatives in fall 2017, and was made his administration's signature platform plank.

Both ruling and opposition parties believe Japan needs drastic measures to counter the country's low birthrate. However, the opposition camp has lashed out at the diversion of new sales tax revenue to the free education initiative as de-facto pork-barreling. "The government's policy priorities are misplaced," said one opposition legislator.

The program became a point of contention during the ongoing regular Diet session, but Prime Minister Abe skirted opposition criticism, saying, "This is not a matter of choosing between eliminating long day care space waiting lists and making preschool education and child care free. Both are important." He highlighted the fact that the number of children on waiting lists had dipped below the 20,000 mark for the first time in a decade as of April 2018, calling the decline his administration's "achievement."

When a legislator pointed out that the free program could stimulate new demand for day care, Minister of State for Measures for Declining Birthrate Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi countered by saying, "Most children aged between 3 and 5 are accommodated at authorized child care facilities, and the effect would be extremely limited." However, one opposition member shot back that "some children may switch from kindergartens to day care."

The unfair aspect of the free program -- in that middle- to high-income earners gain more from it -- was also called into question. According to a December 2018 estimate by the Cabinet Office, 50% of public funds for the program will end up benefitting households with annual income of roughly 6.4 million yen or more, while a mere 1% will go to help those subject to residential tax exemptions for low-income families.

This comes in contrast to the current system, in which child care fees are scaled to household income, with low-income families given fee exemptions or reductions. The new free program will rather save more money for middle- and high-income earners now paying high child care fees compared to low-income households already paying small or no fees. Meanwhile, those lower down on the income spectrum will still have to pay the higher consumption tax rate funding the initiative. Critics say this could generate a sense of unfairness among low-income earners.

Measures to improve day care service quality have also been put on the backburner. In a plan drawn up in 2014, the government pledged to enhance day care staffing criteria, but the promise has yet to be fulfilled.

"It looks as if the clock has stopped," quipped CDP lower house legislator Tomoko Abe, pointing out the current staffing criteria were set in the late 1960s through the early 1970s.

The opposition bloc, however, was not necessarily aligned in countering the government-sponsored bill. The Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) voted for the controversial bill in both chambers of the Diet. "We cannot ignore the needs of parents and guardians," commented a senior DPFP official.

(Japanese original by Ai Yokota, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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