TOKYO -- Day care waiting lists have declined slightly overall but still grew on the year in 16 of 34 major Japanese municipalities, suggesting that the government remains far from its goal of clearing the chronic backlog.
The Nikkei surveyed 20 cities and Tokyo's 23 wards, with 14 cities and 20 wards responding by Thursday. The total number of children on waiting lists in these areas fell 7% to around 6,500 as of April 1. Just six municipalities cut their lists to zero, including Tokyo's Toshima and Chiyoda wards and Kumamoto city.
Setagaya Ward -- Tokyo's most populous district -- again had the longest list, though the total dropped 28% on the year to 861. The ward used the strategic special zone scheme, which allows Tokyo wards and other areas to experiment with deregulation, to add about 2,200 slots through such steps as building child care centers in public parks. When residents protested, the local government held meetings to explain its plans. But even with a 70% increase in capacity, the city was unable to accept all new applications, which rose 4% to 6,680.
The second-longest waiting list was in Okayama, due partly to the city's measuring method, which includes even children who were not accepted at the family's top three choices. Okayama also lowered fees starting this fiscal year, which led to more applications.
Many municipalities do not count cases where parents extend child-care leave to look after children not admitted to day care. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in March changed its definition of children on waiting lists to include those whose parents who would return to work if care were available, aiming to get an idea of the number of these "hidden" children. The ministry has asked municipalities to apply the new standard by fiscal 2018, but only 40% currently use it.
Among them is Tokyo's Meguro Ward, which saw its waiting list swell from 299 children to 617. Despite the addition of 431 slots, a quarter of new applicants were not accepted. Four other municipalities -- Setagaya, Chuo and Shibuya wards and Okayama -- could not accommodate 10% or more of new applicants.
Rising female employment has played a major part in boosting demand. About 73% of Japanese women between 25 and 44 years old are employed -- a jump of about 15 percentage points over three decades. Having child care available encourages women to work.
The welfare ministry is to release a new plan for clearing the waiting lists as early as next month. It aims to make enough space available to achieve this goal even if the employment rate among women ages 25-44 reaches 80%. But given that the availability of day care itself boosts demand, clearing out the lists will be difficult.
The shortage of child care professionals is another challenge. The ratio of day care job openings to job seekers hit 2.76 in January, when demand picks up, with higher-demand areas having a tougher time securing staff. Day care facilities in Nerima Ward were forced to stop accepting applications for infants less than a year old due to a lack of personnel.