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29% fewer kids waiting to enter Japan's authorized day cares than 2018: Mainichi survey

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 -- The number of children waiting to enter authorized day care and other facilities in 75 major municipalities across Japan stood at 7,894 as of April, down 29% from the figure recorded a year ago, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has found.

The drop in the number, by 3,271 compared to 2018, marked the second consecutive yearly decline. The latest survey also shows that the trend of notoriously long waiting lists of children seeking day care spots has apparently passed its peak nationwide.

Nevertheless, some municipalities still have hundreds of children on such waiting lists, or have seen their lists getting even longer. As the number of children wishing to be enrolled at child care facilities is on the rise, authorities are urged to continue their efforts to secure sufficient nursing spaces ahead of March 2021, when the central government aims to eliminate the waiting lists.

The survey was conducted in May and June targeting Tokyo's 23 wards, 20 ordinance-designated cities, and 32 cities and towns that had at least 100 kids on waiting lists for day care slots in April 2018. All municipalities responded to the survey.

The poll results have shown that the respondent municipalities offer an increased capacity due to efforts such as opening new child care centers, allowing for a total of 964,093 openings -- up 5.5% from 2018 when the figure stood at 50,041 less.

The number of new applicants for day care spots rose by 6,210 to 305,942 in 68 local bodies that keep track of those records, up 2.1% from the previous year.

Meanwhile, the number of children on waiting lists for child care spaces declined in 61 municipalities, which account for some 80% of all respondent local bodies. Of them, eight municipalities saw none on their waiting lists, with Tokyo's Minato Ward and Suginami Ward, the city of Kyoto in western Japan and the central Japan city of Nagoya making the achievement for the first time.

The capital's Chiyoda Ward saw four on waiting lists, ending its five-year streak of none. Toshima Ward, also in Tokyo, saw 16 children on waiting lists, a spike after having no kids on lists for two years in a row. The rise, they say, stems from a change in the definition of waiting lists by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which led to an inclusion of those who rejected the dispatch of baby-sitters to such lists.

Nearly half of respondent municipalities, at 35, have at least 100 kids waiting to get into day care facilities. Setagaya Ward topped the list of such municipalities with 470 children on waiting lists, down 16 from last year, followed by the western Japan city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, at 412 (down 159 from 2018), and the city of Saitama, north of Tokyo, at 393 (up 78). Fourteen municipalities witnessed their waiting lists grow from the previous year.

Many local bodies also suffer from a dearth of day care staff. This has led 40 municipalities to slash their day care capacity over the past three years, among other repercussions.

When queried about the state's program to make early education and day care free of charge starting this coming October, 46 municipalities, or some 60%, answered that they believe the program will raise the number of applicants to day care centers. The city of Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, said it has already received more applications, with five in April coming from those anticipating the free program.

Aki Fukoin, head of "Hoikuen o kangaeru oya no kai," an association of parents considering the day care issue, commented, "At long last, measures taken by local bodies have caught up with the needs of parents and guardians. As many newly established facilities have restraints in their day care services, such as having no playgrounds, it is a major challenge to solve those issues."

(Japanese original by Mizuki Osawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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