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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
March 20, 2006

Improve Child-Raising Capabilities of Localities

Haruo SHIMADA (Professor, Keio University and Chairman, Fujitsu Research Institute)

Regional support for raising children should be given to full-time employees in large metropolitan areas. Services provided by the private sector should be promoted to meet the various needs of parents by introducing a voucher system.

Ease restrictions on establishing private childcare centers

The population decrease is now a reality, and the policies to cope with the declining birth rate are becoming to be of utmost importance. There seems to be an air of resignation toward the trend, but there are countries such as France and Sweden where birth rates have recovered. Realistic measures should be sought for implementation in Japan. Such measures might not be effective in coping with the labor shortage problem becoming severe in the short run, but they are the most important policy measures in seeking the country’s bright future.

The issue of declining birthrate may be divided into three aspects: birth and infant care, protection and nurturing of children, and balancing of child-raising and working career.

First is to improve the social environment for birth and infant care. Presently, health insurance is not applicable to delivery of a baby. A lump sum of 300,000 yen is provided by the government, but it normally covers only a fraction of the real cost for the parents. In addition, along with delivery, birth and fertility treatment should be covered by health insurance, and gynecologic sections in hospitals across the country should be enhanced.

Improvements in the infant care system should be concentrated in metropolitan areas and for full-time workers. There are 22,570 child-care centers in Japan taking care of about 2 million infants. But those in large cities are scarce relative to the concentration of the population, and there are many infants waiting to be admitted to the centers. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reports the number of children waiting for child-care placement to be approximately 23,000, but this number has not decreased despite more child-care centers being built. This is an indication that in reality there are significantly more children waiting in line than indicated by the official statistics, perhaps several times more.

Of the 22,570 childcare centers about 12,090 are public-owned, most of which, as a rule, open at 8 am and close at 6 pm. Most of the other centers are run by social welfare corporations, with operations similar to that of public-owned. For parents working in large cities full-time who must consider commuting time as well, it is practically impossible to observe the operating hours of these facilities. This is an example of difficulties working parents face in addition to the sheer shortage of the facilities.

Public-owned centers are maintained with high standards facilitating ample number of personnel and rich equipment. Child caretakers working there with the status of government employee are generally aged, and earn high salaries. For this reason, national and local governments facing financial constraints are not able to offer the necessary number of child-care centers. In order to solve the stalemate, it is necessary to allow privately run child-care centers to be established more easily, which would allow for various services to meet diversified needs. Privately run centers currently require authorization by the localities, but often the licensing process is hindered by vested interests. Then there are various and many regulations in areas such as safety and functional standards of the equipment as well as financial soundness in establishing private centers. Moreover, it is very difficult for a private center to compete with public-owned centers that utilize an allocated budget and provide services at low cost to parents. Regulatory reform is necessary to take away these obstacles and facilitate privately owned centers to provide various and abundant services.

In order to realize such a scheme, introduction of a voucher system that would allow users to choose among various service facilities should prove effective. It could also stimulate the development of services that are truly needed. In addition, integration of the functions of child-care centers and kindergartens, now unattainable because the government agencies supervising the two facilities differ, should be sought.

Networking of child-care support facilities established by private companies should be promoted. Companies would set up child-care facilities on their own premises, and by networking them with other companies, employees of participating companies could use the facility most fit for their specific needs. This was the idea incorporated into the "Reform Process Chart" compiled in 2001 by the government upon my proposal as the Special Advisor for Economic and Fiscal Policy to the Cabinet Office, and was implemented on a trial basis in 2003 by Shiseido in Tokyo. If more companies could join the project, it would form a network of private child-care centers within the metropolitan commuting area, whereby workers could successfully balance work and child-raising by using the facility most convenient for them. Eventually the facilities could be opened up to accept local children, too. The framework is already in place, so it is a matter of dissemination through cooperation between governments and the private sector.

Create crammers run by the elderly to teach children about life

The second item is the protection and nurturing of children. Recently there have been a number of incidents and crimes where children became victims. As more mothers start to become employed while at the same time the functions of localities to protect children erode, elementary school children--especially in the lower grades--have to spend their after school hours without guardians watching them over, creating a serious risk. A new scheme formulated through cooperation between governments and private sectors to support child-raising is necessary. I have two suggestions. One is the "crammer" scheme whereby retired workers and mothers who have finished raising children would accept and take care of pupils after school, either at home or outside facilities until their parents return from work. During this time the crammer guardians would teach children such things as the wisdom of living. They could cooperate with children's clubs and local family support centers (mutual membership organizations to provide child-raising and nursing care) to fill in where support is most needed, such as care after 6 pm and providing dinner for the children. Various group activities, such as sporting events, could be organized using the ingenuity of participants in various ways. Currently, the cities of Kawasaki, Saitama, Hiratsuka, and Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo are experimenting with such a scheme based on my proposal and under the guidance of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. Similar schemes should be implemented in other parts of the country.

Another proposal is the introduction of "child-raising support taxis." This is a derivative of the scheme adopted by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which originally was intended as a membership, timesharing service for the elderly but was redirected when it was learned that there were more needs in families raising children.

Specified taxi drivers would accompany children to schools, crammers, and then home in lieu of their parents. It might enhance safety if such taxis are equipped with a mobile phone with a camera. Such a scheme to protect children through cooperation of schools, localities, and people related with transportation services, should also be realized nationwide.

Cooperation of corporate society is essential

The third point is balancing of child-raising and working career for parents, especially mothers. The understanding and cooperation of the corporate sector is absolutely necessary to tackle this issue. Understanding and leadership by corporate executives plays a critical role in creating a corporate culture to support the initiative. To raise awareness, mandating companies to form child-raising support plans and guidelines, as well as implementing a system to award recognition to those companies with good track records should be effective. It is important not only to focus on the plans of large corporations, but also on medium and small size companies employing child-raising mothers.

There are a number of additional points needed to be resolved, such as the flexible allocation of tasks and roles for mothers in work teams, utilization of child-care leave by fathers, and smooth resumption of work career upon returning to work after maternity leave.

In the days when factories employed large numbers of female workers, it was natural for each workplace to provide child-care facilities. But they were abolished as laborsaving technology penetrated production sites and such workers disappeared. On the other hand, despite the increase of female full-time office workers, child-care facilities are very scarce there. Making it mandatory for workplaces to facilitate child-care services, and promoting networking of those services should be effective.

Until recently, the decline of birth rate was largely due to the declining number of marriages. This could be deduced from the statistics that the birth rate of those married for more than 20 years was relatively high at 2.2 children per couple, while the number of unmarried or divorced was increasing.

But recently, the birth rate of those couples married for 5 to 15 years is showing a significant decline, which indicates it has become difficult for ordinary married couples to raise children. It is of utmost urgency, therefore, to address the three aspects discussed above.

The financial burden of child-raising has been growing steadily, and countries such as France and Sweden provide ample assistance in the form of subsidies and tax breaks. Japan is also increasing children's allowance despite the budget being under severe restraint. Financial assistance is obviously important, but what needs to be promoted strongly is to provide convenient services amply to those intending to have, and already raising, children. There is still a large gap to be filled between the needs of the people and the services currently being provided, which needs to be bridged through regulatory reform and endeavors of both public and private sectors.

(The original Japanese article appeared in the February 28, 2006 issue of Nihon Keizai Shimbun.)

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