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Minding the Kids in Japan
JT Brown

...these teachers intimately get to know each of their little charges, taking an interest in each’s unique world.

The other day I was invited to a sports festival at a daycare center for tiny tots.
Now, I once promised myself I’d never do a story about ‘cuteness’ and Japan. But here I go. Because these one to five year-olds were CUTE. I also came away knowing a bit about Japan’s version of public daycare for children of working parents. This issue, childcare, crops up in all contemporary societies, no matter the hemisphere. So thought I’d share today what I discovered.

First though, let’s start with those kids. There were 97 of them all together, plus parents, relatives, and the childcare center staff, or "teachers", as they are referred to in Japanese. Everyone was squeezed onto the outdoor playground of the facility, which was the size a neighborhood basketball court, if that. We had relay races (including passing of batons), chicken fights (for the five year-olds: kids rode piggy-back on Mommy or Daddy, trying to snatch caps off the heads of opponents while not allowing someone to snatch the cap off his or her own head), obstacle courses, ‘Simon Says’ types of games, and lots of group dancing (this is Japan, after all). Mickey Mouse and Minnie even came by for cameos (teachers wearing papier mache head gear and big white gloves).

The relay race between teams of combined four and five year-olds was a delight. (Some of those little cherubs can really book! Others stopped running part way and burst into tears. All were adorable.) I also got a kick out of the 1 year-old’s ‘Run to Mama’ competition. Some of the bambinos sort of waddled around as their mothers outdid themselves beckoning away with outstretched arms from the finish line. Others sort of did a rendition of Smiley’s frog from Mark Twain’s "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County": they just squatted at the starting line and went nowhere. But my favorite event would have to be the dancing where I got to see 97 littles tikes ‘shake their thang’. I kid you not. Hands on hips, they stuck out their tiny booties in unison, and shook it, baby. Sort of like Elmocize by Geraldine Jones.

Clearly, a lot of rehearsal time went into these events. And overall, kudos to the devoted teachers and staff that take care of these children on a daily basis. I have heard Dr. Laura -that pious scold of the North American airwaves- lambaste childcare as a place where children are "warehoused". Frankly, that might well be the case at many a childcare facility in the US. Perhaps some of my Canadian friends will apprise me by email of the situation in their great country, as I wouldn’t know. But here in Japan, childcare is done right.

The biggest secret to their success: turnover of staff is kept down. How? Teachers have a strong union by Japanese standards. Hours are stringently regulated, year-long maternity leaves are guaranteed (not all, but most teachers are female), and pay is superior to what counterparts get in North America. Exactly how much? A teacher coyly avoided telling me when I asked, but she indicated contentment. No hourly wages here. Salaries are monthly, and written into the standard teachers’ contract are automatic ‘bonuses’, as per the custom for most salary contracts in Japan.

So the upshot is that teachers in this profession enjoying good working conditions are in it for the career. This in turn enables a child attending these Japanese programs to be taken care of by mostly the same key people for the duration of his or her stay –as long as five years for some.

Classes are formed into groups of zero year-olds, one year-olds, two year-olds, etc., just as in primary school. By law, until age two the ratio of children per care giver can be no greater than six to one. After that the mandate is still a reasonable 15 to one, though the norm is actually better yet: three care givers per class of 30. Furthermore, though not written in stone, the de facto practice is for one lead teacher to be assigned to an age group when they enter at age zero. That teacher then stays with this class all the way through the class’ fifth and final year. For kids, for however many years in childcare, consistency and bonding with a caring, well trained teacher is all part of the program. Maybe this isn’t exactly the same having one’s own parent there anytime they need. But these teachers intimately get to know each of their little charges, taking an interest in each’s unique world. They know ‘Master So-and-So’ loves bulldozers and that he usually has gone to the potty just before getting dropped off at the center. Or they know that little ‘Miss So-and-So’ is currently on an "Ariel" kick (of The Little Mermaid fame), and inform her parents that she has been teaching the staff all the words to Ariel’s theme song. The teacher’s always greet each parent both in the morning and again in the evening, usually having something specific to report about each kid’s day. This also is how teachers keep the pulse of each child’s home life.

In the US, the majority of parents pay between $300 to $400 (per child) in monthly child care costs, though this can go much higher. In Canada, subsidies and charges vary widely from province to province, though the least expensive I found was Quebec’s universal five-dollar (Canadian) per day child care. (Wow!) There are waiting lists there though (as there are in Japan), to the tune of 120 applicants for each 100 spaces available. Also, the "universal" feature appears to soon be falling victim to budget shortfalls; more affluent families may soon have to pay more than five dollars per day.*1

But speaking of money, herein lies a rub with Japanese public childcare. I found out from a friend who is an area administrator for public childcare in nearby city, that in its present incarnation, the math does not add up. (At least, not yet). Depending on household income, families pay up to a maximum of $300 (36,000yen) per child, per month.(For the aged two and over tots, fees max out at $200. Also, discounts are given to families with two or more children in childcare.) Unfortunately, actual costs are $1200 (140,000yen) per child, per month. And this math remains true throughout the country.*2

In other words, local governments in Japan are running a big deficit in their child care operations. In one typical case, say where say a mother entrusts her two children to childcare so that she can hold down a part-time job in order to bring home an extra $800 dollars each month, the city loses at least $2000 each month. The city could actually pay her the $800 to stay home with her kids and still save $1200.

Of course, the number crunching isn’t the only factor to be considered. With all due respect to Dr. Laura, a lot of people feel and an increasing number of public studies indicate that children put in childcare at an early age benefit socially. I don’t know enough about this issue to have a say on it, but for kids aged three and up, I tend to believe that this is true. Ergo, society on the whole is benefitting from these outlays.

Of course, the libertarian in me does have a problem with all taxpayers being forced to subsidize the benefits of a few. And in fact, a private sector model does exist that offers the same service, but more efficiently. A beverage company called Yakult (for those Major League Baseball fans out there, the L.A. Dodger’s Kazuhisa Ishii came from this company’s team) keeps their mostly female sales force on board by running a well regarded in-house childcare center that only charges mothers $51(6000yen) per month, including snacks (the kids do have to bring a packed lunch).*3 I couldn’t obtain actual expenditures per child by Yakult, but even allowing for subsidization by the company, we can be sure that this for-profit firm is not running the same deficits that public childcare does.
But Japan’s otherwise splendid public program possibly does have a ready-made solution to its balance sheet problem on the horizon. Until now, this country has had some of the highest labor costs on the planet. Indeed, salaries make up the bulk of public childcare expenditures. But Japanese demographics are about to come to the rescue. According to governmental statistics, the country’s number of births has been in decline since 1973, thus the total number of Japanese children has likewise been diminishing ever since. Conversely, the aged-65- or-older group has been rapidly expanding and is the only age group that will continue to do so for the forseeable future.*4 While this presents a conundrum for most economic sectors, should Japan just lighten up a bit on its current age bias in the workplace, it will have a sea of perfect care takers –grandma and grandpa aged retirees- to sign up and bring in to look after the kids. I bet they won’t even require much of a salary. They certainly won’t need maternity leave. And the western world, with similar demographics coming down the pipe, might consider doing the same. Meld a semi-retired, underutilized workforce with the Japanese model of childcare. And then let the precious little ones shake their booties away.

© J.T. Brown June 2003

"Parents march to protect $5 day care", Sat, June 14, 2003
*2 Like I said, my friend told me –seriously!
*3 Ditto, but this friend is an employee of Yakult.
*4 This one you can confirm. National Institute of Population and Social Security
Research (they have an English website at:
{Please check out JT Brown’s companion website for all his articles, including a page of accompanying photos for the above story.

Also this month by JT BROWN Japanese Politics

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