Japan’s Newest Government Agency Streamlines Handling of Critical Children’s Issues

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A law to establish the Children and Families Agency is passed at a plenary session of the House of Councillors at the Diet in June 2022.

The newly established Children and Families Agency was launched Saturday with high expectations for streamlining administration on key issues affecting children by centralizing government policies.

There has long been frustration among the many people involved in efforts to address problems involving preschoolers, child abuse and other matters because of the administrative sectionalism among government organs tasked with addressing these issues.

The hope is that the new agency will help to eliminate the jurisdictional barriers.

“The government has finally got serious about tackling these overlooked problems,” said Yumi Ogawa, 49, the head of Anju Maman, a nonprofit organization that provides support for parents of preschoolers in Bungotakada, Oita Prefecture.

Children are eligible to enter kindergarten when they reach age 3. However, prior to reaching that age, acceptance into a nursery school or certified childcare facility known as “nintei kodomoen” is limited to those whose parents are both working or have other special circumstances.

The result has been an estimated 1.82 million children under 3 across the nation not being enrolled in any type of facility.

Ogawa said she has met many homemakers struggling with child-rearing and feeling mentally drained, so much so that some have expressed regret in having given birth at all. To provide as much support as possible, she will take care of toddlers and help mothers with household chores.

Until Saturday, the government body in charge of each type of childcare facility was different: the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry for nursery schools, the Cabinet Office for certified facilities, and the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry for kindergartens. As such, even if Ogawa asked for the support she needed, no fundamental solutions were forthcoming.

Nursery schools and certified facilities now come under the jurisdiction of the new agency. The government plans to create a system that allows all children to enroll in such facilities regardless of their parents’ work status. “I would like to see a system that helps all households,” said Ogawa

The adverse effect of the administrative sectionalism among governmental bodies is also conspicuous in the handling of child abuse cases. There have been many cases of young lives lost because local governments, child consultation centers and the police failed to share information on suspected child abuse.

Jurisdiction over child abuse cases has been shifted from the health ministry to the Children and Families Agency. The new agency also has the authority to issue advisories to another ministry or agency when it notes a problem with the latter’s response to an incident, thus raising expectations for strengthened cooperation with local governments and the police.

“I want the Children and Families Agency to firmly fulfill its role as a command center,” said Keiji Goto, 63, a lawyer who heads Think Kids, a Tokyo-based NPO that works on issues of child abuse.

“A system should be up and running as soon as possible in which child consultation centers and local governments share all abuse cases with the police and accurately assess the risk so that they can visit households at an appropriate frequency.”