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Japan's school closures hit working parents, revealing weak support

Coronavirus measures test Abenomics' push for female employment

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caught parents off guard when he announced his request for schools to be closed. (Nikkei montage)

TOKYO -- Japan's government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has surprised the nation by requesting the closure of all elementary, junior high and senior high schools as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus. With the closure due to start on Monday and last until early April, the news has left parents somewhat perplexed about how they will cope, especially those who work.

Abe, through his economic policy known as Abenomics, had vowed to implement measures that were friendly to working parents and encourage more women to work. But the reaction to the school closures show that the reality in Japan is still far from Abenomics' aim.

"I wonder how we should spend this long spring break," said one Tokyo housewife, 40, with a seven-year-old son. Although she feels the closure is unavoidable as a measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus, it will be impossible to keep kids inside all the time. "I usually let my boy play in a nearby park. But if lots of kids gather there, the closure of schools will become meaningless."

The request is "reasonable" due to the global spread of infections but "should have been made a little earlier," said a 40-year-old female part-time worker. With two boys -- second-year students at junior and senior high school -- she recently applied for in-school preparatory courses due to start in early March for entrance examinations for higher education next spring.

"My kids are bewildered. I accept it now but want [the government] to consider how to recover the lost lessons," she added.

For full-time working parents, the situation is even more tricky.

A woman in her forties who works at a nonprofit organization in the city of Saga and has two children in the early grades of elementary school said, "I wonder if the closure of all schools is necessary in the absence of information on whether children are likely to be seriously affected."

"I will have to take days off to spend time with them. I am afraid they will feel stressed because they will be expected not to go out," she said.

Children on their way to an elementary school in Tokyo on Feb. 28. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

"I don't know what to do because the spread of infections will make me busier [at work]," lamented a 45-year-old nurse in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, noting that her husband also works and has little time to take care of their child. "I don't want our kid to be left alone at the house all day long for many days. It's impossible."

The nurse is reluctant to ask her parents to come to Tokyo to take care of the child, as they live far away and would have to travel by plane or train and, with chronic diseases, this could put them at risk at a time when coronavirus is spreading. "I wonder if the government understands how seriously the [schools closure] will affect families," she said with indignation.

Some companies are allowing their employees to work from home as fears surrounding coronavirus grow. In a Nikkei survey of companies carried out on Thursday, 46% of 136 respondents said they would either partially or fully implement a work-at-home scheme.

Cosmetics maker Kao, for example, will have about 15,000 of its workers, excluding those who work at factories and in stores, telecommute until March 15.

The company implemented its remote working system in 2018, allowing employees who juggle issues such as child-care to work from home up to two days a week.

A spokesperson for the company said, "We implemented the system in order to offer our workers a more stable work-life balance." Although Kao already had a remote work system in place, this will be the first time it will be used on such a large scale, the spokesperson added.

But companies in fields such as retail and restaurants may have a harder time dealing with the sudden school closures. McDonald's Holdings Japan, jewelry seller Yondoshi Holdings, household goods store Loft, and Ryohin Keikaku which runs the Muji chain of household goods stores, all said they were in the process of gathering information and so far had no concrete plans to alter their working methods.

Royal Holdings, the operator of the Royal Host restaurant chain, is also researching the situation. A spokesperson for the company said: "Right now we are waiting for our restaurant managers and part-time workers to discuss what will be the best options for them. Once the information is gathered, we plan on assessing the situation and will take the appropriate measures."

Regional cities have many small and mid-size companies without any teleworking framework.

A 30-year-old female company employee in the city of Fukuoka, who has a child in second grade, said the government measure had come so suddenly that she could not find a place to leave the child. "My kid will be left alone during the daytime," she complained.

In the city of Oita, a 45-year-old female employee with a third-grade child was bewildered by the call to close schools as there has been no infection in Oita Prefecture. "As both my husband and I work, we will have to discuss what to do."

"We cannot take days off because we don't have a teleworking system and are understaffed. The government should think of working parents more seriously," she protested.

"Infections are spreading only in limited areas such as Hokkaido," Koji Wada, professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare, pointed out. The government should "show the reasons for closing all schools, including those in areas where infections have not spread," he said.

"The coronavirus epidemic will continue for a while. Even if it temporarily subsides in April, it may reoccur sporadically because of causes such as another inflow [of the virus] from abroad," Wada said. The potential social impact of pulling out any sort of card to deal with the problem must be carefully evaluated before it is used, he stressed.

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