The challenge of eliminating supply-demand disparities in childcare

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A staff member disinfects a chair at a nursery school in Osaka in January.

For working parents, child day care centers are important social infrastructure. This is also true in Japan, where an increasing number of women are working while raising children. I was able to continue working when my now-teenage daughter was a toddler because I put her in an authorized nursery in central Tokyo, which was thought to be extremely difficult at that time. Simply put, there were not enough facilities in central Tokyo then for the number of children who needed them.

Now, however, something is happening that was unthinkable a decade ago. Even at the beginning of the school year, when demand for childcare is at its highest, there is still room for more children, and many day care centers are accepting applications for enrollment.

A relevant Japanese law stipulates that the provision of childcare services at nurseries and preschools is the responsibility of municipalities. In order to use an authorized childcare facility, an application must be submitted to the local government office. For this reason, many local governments provide information on how to access childcare services and the availability of facilities on their websites. An internet search at the time of writing this article revealed dozens of facilities with openings in central Tokyo municipalities with large populations and high demand for childcare, such as Minato and Ota wards.

According to a survey conducted this spring by The Yomiuri Shimbun on 94 municipalities in which there is strong demand for childcare services, including government ordinance-designated cities and prefectural capitals, 39% of all childcare facilities were below capacity as of April.

It would be a blessing for parents if there are facilities available whenever needed. There would be no problem if all applicants could get in where they want to. However, according to the survey, the number of applicants who could not get into their preferred day care centers accounted for about 20% of the total.

What does this mean?

Many municipalities said applicants tend to concentrate their preferences on a few facilities, resulting in waiting lists at those places and vacancies elsewhere. Nursery schools that are attractive from the parents’ point of view, such as those with convenient locations, new facilities, good childcare services, and early-morning or late-night care, are very popular, while those with inconvenient locations, old or small facilities, and short operating hours do not attract many users.

This demand-supply mismatch is not a new phenomenon.

In 2013, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began a full-fledged effort during his second administration to increase childcare facilities, trying to realize one of his policy goals of promoting women’s advancement in the workplace. Even then, the total capacity of day care facilities nationwide, including not just those in major cities but also regional municipalities, was 2.4 million, 120,000 more than the total number of applicants at 2.28 million.

In 2016, an anonymous blog post titled: “[My child] couldn’t get into day care. Die, Japan!” was taken up by an opposition House of Representative member at a session of the Diet and became a social issue. Many working parents expressed their anger at the government for the lack of suitable nurseries. If they could not get their children into day care centers after their parental leave from work ended, they had no choice but to quit their jobs. The anger prompted the government to accelerate the establishment of nursery schools nationwide. The central government has spent roughly ¥100 billion annually to construct nurseries since 2018.

According to an estimate by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the total capacity of approved day care facilities nationwide is expected to increase to 3.28 million this year, while the number of applicants is estimated to be 2.9 million. A simple calculation shows that the gap between supply and demand has widened from 120,000 in 2013 to 380,000. This could mean that the demand-supply mismatch has become more serious and spread to more municipalities.

For the past two years, many local governments have had a stagnant number of applicants due to the pandemic; many parents chose not to use day care out of fear of their children getting infected with the coronavirus.

Even taking this into account, the central and local governments should work more to eliminate the disparities. In other words, if some facilities are not popular, they should investigate why and make them more attractive.

Tokyo’s Minato Ward conducted a survey earlier this year of households with small children, to find out what kind of childcare services they would like to use. Some municipalities are working to accept more children with disabilities or chronic conditions into day care centers. It would be great if municipalities worked harder to provide the childcare services that parents really want.

In doing so, it will be crucial to improve the working conditions of childcare workers. A large number of experienced childcare staff are needed to provide high-quality childcare services. In the Yomiuri Shimbun poll, many municipalities, mainly in regional areas, said their facilities’ utilization was below capacity partly because they could not find enough childcare workers.

According to a 2021 survey by the health ministry, the average length of service of childcare workers was 8.8 years, compared to an average of 12.3 years for all workers. It also showed their average monthly salary, excluding bonuses, was ¥256,500, compared to ¥334,800 for all workers. They spend long hours taking care of children and work overtime in the evenings to complete paperwork and prepare for the next day. It is hard work for the pay, and many quit after a short period of time. Since the start of the pandemic, they have also been required to take infection prevention measures such as disinfection and health checks of the children, and some reportedly quit the job due to exhaustion. There is an urgent need to improve the treatment of these workers.

In 2021, the number of births nationwide was about 840,000. It has decreased by about 20% over the past decade, reaching an all-time low for the sixth consecutive year. The ministry estimates that the demand for childcare services will peak in 2025 and slowly decline thereafter. When the construction of more nurseries is no longer necessary, the central and local governments should not allocate the budgets to other policy areas: Instead, use them to raise the quality of childcare services.

Ikuko Higuchi

Higuchi is a staff writer in the Lifestyle News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.