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Early Childhood Care, Work, and Family in Japan: Trends in a Society of Smaller Families.

As Japan has become increasingly affluent, middle class, and urbanized over the past 50 years (Shwalb & Shwalb, 1996; Wray & Conroy, 1983), the number of traditional three-generation families has decreased (Morioka, 1986), young people are marrying later and having fewer children, and more mothers are working outside the home. In the last decade, a low fertility rate (which, the government asserts, threatens the future of social security) and a struggling economy have stimulated a variety of government initiatives and programs that affect families, the child care system, and the youngest children. Such initiatives are critical because children age 3 and younger make up the fastest growing group in Japanese child care centers.

In 1983, the author moved to Japan, where she spent 14 years teaching English to Japanese children, followed by a year of observations, study, and correspondence with parents, child care administrators, and other early childhood specialists. Through interviews and questionnaires, she collected personal stories, facts, and opinions from a diverse group of parents, teachers, and academics. These respondents all were acquaintances or recommended as knowledgeable about child rearing or out-of-home child care. Approximately 30 parents and 20 professionals from Toyama Prefecture, Ishikawa Prefecture, and Tokyo responded. The results may be influenced by the fact that both Toyama and Ishikawa have fertility rates lower than the national average, and in 1995 were ranked among the top five prefectures in the country in terms of the percentage of employed women--ranking fourth (at 53.4 percent) and fifth (at 53.2 percent), respectively. (Tokyo was slightly above average, at 48.1 percent.) These figures go up significantly for "married women of child-bearing age."

Demographics and the Expanding Child Care System

The fertility rate in Japan has decreased from 1.91 children per family in 1975 to 1.37 in 1999, while the numbers of children under 3 in child care centers (called hoikusho or hoikuen) have increased. Although the number of children 3 years old and under in Japan has dropped from 5.3 million in 1975 to 3.6 million in 1998, the same age group in the hoikusho system has grown from 260,000 in 1975 to 503,000, about 14 percent of all children under 3, in 1999. The number of infants under 1 who are enrolled in hoikusho has grown from 27,000 in 1978 (Early Childhood Education Association of Japan, 1979) to 63,000 in 1999.

In contrast, the rates of preschool attendance of children age 3 and over have remained relatively steady in the past three decades. For more than two decades, licensed preschools, including both hoikusho and yochien, partial-day kindergartens that serve only 3- to 6-year-olds (Hendry, 1986; Peak, 1991), have been serving at least 70 percent of all 3- to 6-year-olds. That figure was up to 80 percent (almost 6 million children) in 1998 (Kosei Koho Kenkyukai, 1999).

Why are fewer children being born? Officials say it is the result of the trend toward marrying later or not at all. Women are now as educated and as desirous of careers and financial independence as men are; consequently, more are entering the labor force (Fujimura-Fanselow & Imamura, 1991). Other reasons for the diminishing birth rate are the high financial costs of rearing and educating children, less space and safety for children to play in urban environments, less help at home with child rearing, the decreased need for children's labor at home, and less of a need for children to support parents when they get old (Morris-Suzuki, 1998; Thomas, 1993; Uno, 1999). An awareness of worldwide overpopulation also may influence some decisions about child bearing. Finally, many young people now express a lack of confidence in having the time, energy, or ability to rear children. All of these reasons may contribute to the portrait of couples who "ideally want three children, but actually have only two," as worded in a Ministry of Health and Welfare survey (1999a).

Why is the need for infant and toddler care growing? First, more mothers are employed and, second, more mothers live apart from their own parents, who traditionally helped them care for their children. More specifically, while approximately half of all women over age 15 have been in the labor force over the last half century (the lowest point was 46.1 percent in 1975), women are now more career-oriented and more wish to continue working after having children. Grandparents are unavailable to offer care not only because they live apart from their grandchildren, but also because they are more likely to be employed themselves. Studies show that fathers have not yet stepped into the gap as partners in housekeeping and child rearing, and more women are finding the idea of staying home alone all day with young children to be frustrating and unappealing (Jolivet, 1993/1997; Naff, 1996). For all these reasons, and perhaps more, the need for infant and toddler care outside the home has increased; in 1999, almost half the working mothers responding to a government survey expressed a wish for child care centers to serve more, and younger, children (Kosei Koho Kenkyukai, 1999).

The government, in the hopes of raising Japan's fertility rate (Browne & Reeves, 1999; Oshima, 1999), has proposed changes to create a social environment "where women can bear and raise their children while continuing to work [outside the home]" (Ministry of Health and Welfare, 1999a, p. 5/5). Some changes specifically affect the care of young children inside or outside the home, and most are part of a project called the Angel Plan (Ishikawa Ken Koseibu Kosodate Shienka, no date). Many efforts focus on increasing the quality, availability, and flexibility of hoikusho. For example, centers can be subsidized for longer hours of regular operation (up to 10 or more hours a day) and to operate at night and on holidays. In addition, certain requirements for quality have changed. For example, the average ratio of caregivers to infants has changed from 1:6 to 1:3, and the educational emphasis for all preschools shifted officially in 1989 from intellectual training to a more holistic approach.

Other requirements have become less strict. The legal limit on the number of centers serving infants was lifted in 1998 to increase availability. Any center meeting government-approved quality standards now can take infants. The government has recommended allowing "women with child-rearing experience" to work as assistants in preschools ("LDP Seeks," 1999). It is also easing laws that require ownership of property and a minimum number of children in private centers ("Ministry Seeks," 1999). The government also is campaigning to encourage fathers to participate in child rearing, and urging employers to allow leave time for child care arrangements and to guarantee parents' jobs when they return to work (Ministry of Labour, 1997). Finally, many communities are providing play groups and play centers where mothers of infants can meet.

Rough Transitions in the Culture of Child Rearing

Emiko Ochiai (1994/1997) wrote,

At no time in history has the group known as `the family' raised children unaided.... The reason why today's parents appear to be in difficulties is that the networks concerned with children's growth are undergoing change, and this reorganization is not going smoothly. (p. 143)

Society has become more aware of such problems as child maltreatment, anxious parents, and the conflict between work and child rearing (" `92-96 Study Finds," 1999; "Fatherless Kids on Rise," 2000; Large, 1999; MacIntyre & Tashiro, 1999; Yakushiji, 1997).

Child care professionals are feeling a heavy burden of responsibility for rearing Japan's children. Katsumi Ume, the director of the hoikusho system in Nonoichi Town, Ishikawa Prefecture, told me, "We now have to develop the children's potentials and characters, parent them, love them, teach them the culture, and also teach parents how to rear their children." Professionals feel their job is both more difficult and more crucial. This feeling is often expressed with a concern over loosening bonds or lack of attachment between parents and children. A director of a hoikusho in Tokyo emphasizes that unless mothers learn to care for their own babies "their relationships will suffer" (S. Yamagiwa, personal communication, October 1999). A professor of child development described how he believed that relationship develops:

Love doesn't just appear when a baby is born. A feeling of love or attachment develops as a person cares for the helpless baby, as they feed it, change its diapers, touch it and realize the awesome fact that "without me this baby would not live!" If a parent doesn't spend time taking care of the baby, this feeling of attachment will not develop. (I. Kishii, personal communication, October 1999)

Severe anxiety about child rearing is a growing problem among young mothers (Jolivet, 1993/1997; Large, 1999; Yakushiji, 1997). This problem may be related not only to mothers' lack of contact with their own babies, but also to a lack of experience with children while growing up. A society of smaller families means fewer siblings or younger playmates with whom to interact. In one university child development class, 48 out of 50 students had never held a baby (I. Kishii, personal communication, October 1999).

On the other hand, too much contact with one's baby as a result of social isolation, lack of help from the father or other family members, and perhaps a kind of maternal perfectionism also may lead to problems. Katsuko Makino, a professor at Ochanomizu University, has studied child-rearing anxiety over the last decade and has concluded that "for the mother, establishing a certain degree of separation from her child is clearly linked to maintaining a healthier attitude to child rearing" (Ochiai, 1997, p. 134). Eight parents (seven mothers and one father) of infants in hoikusho responding to the author's questionnaire seemed to support that conclusion. Over half wrote that the amount of time with their child was not as important as being loving when they were together, or that being apart sometimes can be refreshing for both.

Parents who need child care outside their homes often encounter stressful logistical problems. Mari Nakamura's story is a case in point:

When I started working, my son was 2 and we lived in a small city. Things were going very well with a babysitter. Everyone was happy. Then the babysitter's husband got transferred, and everything changed. I couldn't drive, so I put my son in a day care center that had bus service. He had to go all day even though I didn't work full time. After that he got sick every month, sometimes more. It was hard for my husband and me. We had to take off work, which is hard to do in Japan. But it was hardest on my son. I think he wanted to be with me. He would cry at night in his sleep. I felt so guilty. How I wished I could, by hugging him as he slept, make him feel my love during the day at the day care center. (M. Nakamura, personal communication, June 1999)

The transportation, scheduling, and cost issues associated with child care can become major stumbling blocks for families. Distances from homes to workplaces tend to be long. If the hoikusho is near work, problems arise associated with transporting a baby across the city at rush hour. If the center is near home, the parents' commute may be such that the child needs care for longer than an eight-hour work day. It may be difficult to find flexible care. Many centers can offer a choice of only full-time (eight hours/day, six days/week) or part-time (up to 12 days/month) care, with a fixed price for each arrangement. If a parent stays home with the child on a day off or wants only half-day care, for example, the price does not change. Child care costs in general, although based on a sliding fee scale according to income, are going up as demand increases.

Another problem is the difficulty of finding temporary care. Family day care and other babysitting arrangements (until World War II, the main providers of child care) are today unusual and considered generally unreliable in Japan (Uno, 1999). That trend may be changing. In April 2000, the government began setting standards for family day care, called hoiku mama, to encourage licensed nurses or teachers to register with the hoikusho in their area and provide care in their homes for overflow, temporary, or special needs children.

The role of fathers in Japanese society of smaller families is now the subject of much controversy (Shwalb & Shwalb, 1996). When Japan was primarily rural and most families consisted of three generations living together in the same household, men were strongly discouraged from cooking or doing housework. After World War II, more men became salaried workers and the gender roles became even further divided; housework and child rearing remained a feminine task (Bernstein, 1991; Fujita, 1989; White, 1987b). As families decreased in size, however, the need for fathers' participation in the home increased. Nevertheless, a man who takes time off work to care for his children is not looked upon favorably by his peers. Today's young parents are making the effort to redefine gender equality and find ways of sharing the family responsibilities. Many men still find it difficult to participate as full partners in child rearing and housework, however, because of their own feelings and the expectations of others (Condon, 1985; Jolivet, 1993/1997).

In 1999, the government carried out a campaign to encourage fathers' participation in child rearing, using a poster depicting a handsome young celebrity with his child. It was not an unqualified success, however. Mari Nakamura, whose husband works late most nights, said, "The government campaign to get fathers more involved with child rearing makes my husband frustrated. He loves our son very much, but he has to work long hours. There's no way he could take off more time and still keep his job." The same is true for employed women. Many difficulties still remain for workers who want to take time off to care for children or another family member.

As Japanese women and men climb the career ladder, they enter a world where the common mentality is "work over family"; employees feel obligated to work long hours, forgo needed time off, and accept sudden job transfers without consideration of family needs (Condon, 1985; Thomas, 1993). Despite government recommendations of taking up to one year for maternity leave, much shorter leaves are common, or even not taken at all, for fear of falling behind at work or even losing the job. Especially in times of high unemployment, which was about 8 percent at the time this article was written, there are "an increasing number of cases in which women were fired because of pregnancy or childbirth," according to the Ministry of Labor ("Govt. Warns Firms," 2000). While it may be ideal to stay home with a baby at least one year, the reality is more likely to be two months--the length of the standard maternity leave.

There are some encouraging signs; a one-year maternity leave is guaranteed to teachers, nurses, and other public employees, for example. Even some men have taken child care leave for several months. In 1999, a regular column ran in the Asahi Press called "Growth Diary of a Father Taking Child Care Leave," featuring contributions by various fathers (Ozaki, 1999). Most fathers, however, still cannot consider taking leave.

Toward a Smoother Road for a Society With Smaller Families

The Japanese, who long have appreciated the importance of a child's first three years of life, have an old saying, "The soul of the 3-year-old lasts till 100." The fact that infants need adults' reliable attention, affection, and commitment is well understood, at least in theory. Japanese society, the child care system, the labor force, and the family all are changing quickly, and undoubtedly will change further. Considering how quickly those first three years pass and the great impact of early experiences on later life (Bowlby, 1951; Erikson, 1950; Goleman, 1995; Hoffman, 1988; Leach, 1994; McMullen, 1999), it is important to ensure that the changes will not cause harm. Attention must be paid to providing care options that fulfill the needs of every young child.

While it may seem a natural transition for a preschool system that serves children over 3 to serve children under 3 as well, certain differences between the two groups bear consideration. In Japan, preschool for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds is widely believed to offer children the best opportunities for education and socialization, especially in a society where children typically have few siblings or playmates (Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989; White, 1987a). Infants and toddlers, on the other hand, have little to gain from group environments. Much of what infants and toddlers need, especially regarding mental and emotional development, cannot be easily supplied in group settings by child care professionals.

Who can fill those needs, then, and how? Parents, of course, are in a unique position to fill them and should be given whatever cooperation is needed to do so. However, they should not be expected to do it alone, nor should it be assumed that parents are automatically the best possible caregivers all of the time. Each case is unique, and systems must be flexible enough to adjust to individual needs. As the people of Japan seek to solve the complicated challenges related to the rearing of infants and toddlers today, the author makes the following suggestions.

* Rather than emphasizing numbers--fertility, aging, unemployment--and speaking of newborn babies as heroes who must "shoulder the coming ages," as one Ministry of Health and Welfare bulletin (1999b) put it, more public concern could focus on the importance of nurturing and developing each child simply because of his or her own intrinsic value. Child care is not just a series of tasks that can be assigned to any person, but rather is a growth process that happens in the context of relationships. As psychologist Nobuko Uchida stated, "Every baby should be respected as a person, listened to, given choices--not just molded to fit somebody's idea of who they should become" (personal communication, October 1999).

* More teenagers could be tapped for babysitting responsibilities, especially in urban communities. With proper training, organization, and supervision, a babysitting system could represent a step toward meeting parental needs for help with housework, offer people hands-on experience with children (and give them confidence about their future parenting skills); and serve as steady part-time employment for young people ("1.5 Mil. Young People," 2000).

* In a society of small families, like Japan's, it seems natural and necessary for nuclear families to form close ties with people who are not related by blood. People can be encouraged and guided in efforts to find and form such relationships in their communities. As family structures change, healthy sociability will be an essential skill.

* Finally, employers today are probably in the best position to create a child-friendly social environment. They can: 1) offer more part-time employment suitable for educated, career workers; 2) fight discrimination against workers who need time off to care for children, whether they are fathers, mothers, or other caregivers; 3) seek ways to make public urban environments safer and more welcoming to children so that people of all ages can benefit from social contact with one another, and 4) make working conditions more healthful and more efficient. The government can take a role by supporting employers who risk making changes that can assist in the rearing of children in the crucial first three years of life.


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Author's Note: I gratefully acknowledge Itsuko Kitano, Mari Nakamura, Miyuki Hinata, and Ryuko Takahashi for their assistance in collecting and translating data and questionnaires, as well as Jacques Lempers, Katie McDonough, and Walter Newport for comments on drafts of this article.

All statistics not specifically cited were provided by Toyama Prefecture Bureau of Statistics.

Sally F. Newport is an American early childhood specialist, and Founder, Harvesta English School, Toyama Prefecture, Japan.
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Title Annotation:research
Author:Newport, Sally F.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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