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Potential danger lurks behind convenience of Japan online babysitter matching services

NCMA Japan, a company that offers an online babysitter matching service, holds a training course on child care in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on June 6, 2016. (Mainichi/Haruka Udagawa)

TOKYO -- Online services that help match babysitters to working parents in Japan have been gathering increased attention due to their convenience, but rising cases of crime show the difficulty of securing good quality among registered caregivers.

One such example is a recent incident that happened in an apartment room while a child's parents were away. In April, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested Akinori Hashimoto, 29, for allegedly sexually molesting a 5-year-old boy under his care as a babysitter in an apartment in Tokyo's Chuo Ward in November 2019. The suspect allegedly touched the young boy's genitals, and investigative sources said he is remaining silent about the allegations against him. Numerous nude photos of children were found in his mobile phone, and the suspect has hinted at his partial involvement in a separate case he was rearrested for in May.

The boy's parents both had jobs and used a major matching service website for the first time to search for a babysitter who would be able to come to the house the next day, as their child had caught a sudden fever and could not be taken to day care. They matched with Hashimoto, a licensed child care professional.

According to the website of the company operating the matching service, users can enter in babysitting dates of their choice and see information about each babysitter, such as their past experiences in childminding. Reservations can be made round the clock and the website can also handle sudden babysitting requests made on the day. No registration fee is needed and costs for babysitting are relatively cheap, starting from 1,000 yen per hour. The total number of reservations made on the site is said to have topped 1 million nationwide since the service was launched in 2015.

Meanwhile, more and more child care professionals as well as those who have experience in raising children are also registering with online babysitter services as they can work flexibly according to their own schedules. The number of businesses offering babysitting services as of the end of March 2018 reached 1,977, more than twice as much from the same period of the year before, with more than 80% consisting of self-employed individuals, according to data by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. It seems that a large majority of such independent workers are registered with online babysitter services, and a ministry representative spoke of self-employed babysitters currently becoming even greater in number. There are at least 10 of these intermediary babysitting websites, just counting the major ones.

While the matching services are highly convenient, the ability to ensure good quality individuals among the registered babysitters is an ongoing problem that has been pointed out for a while. As dispatch companies that employ babysitters are very likely to be held responsible in case trouble arises during child care, such businesses tend to place much effort on the personnel hiring process. A company in Tokyo devotes two weeks to a month for interviews and training before a worker is officially dispatched, and sets their babysitting price at a minimum of 2,100 yen per hour.

On the other hand, companies that operate a matching service do not have any employment agreement between them and the registered babysitters, enabling them to set low prices due to cutbacks on personnel and training expenses. The website of the online service used by the suspect in the Tokyo case in November explains that the orientation program and interview for those seeking to be registered as babysitters take two to three hours in total, and that on-the-spot training preceding official babysitting duties lasts for two hours. The company claims that their screening has a pass rate of about 35%. Although the company has suspended the suspect's babysitter qualification since the incident, it has not responded to inquiries for interviews.

"There is the risk that the companies operating these matching websites will feel less responsibility due to the nature of the online service. In order to maintain good quality among babysitters, these companies should put effort in their prior screening and training of the individual," commented Aki Fukoin, the head representative for a network of parents that supports fellow parents balance work and child care.

The national government is also searching for ways to approach this issue. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry began to strengthen its supervision of the babysitting industry following a 2014 incident in Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo in which a man, who was registered with an online service, was arrested for allegedly killing a boy under his care at his home. The ministry has been demanding that businesses enhance training for babysitters and that they promptly deal with any arising problems.

Fukoin suggests, "Local governments should patrol houses using babysitting services to avoid situations where the child and babysitter are confined in the room alone. I would like for the national government to create a database that keeps a record of babysitters who showed problematic behavior, and can be viewed by local governments and businesses."

(Japanese original by Hironori Tsuchie and Takuya Suzuki, City News Department)

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