Childcare policies in Japan: postwar developments and recent reforms
Since the introduction of the child welfare reform legislation in 1996, childcare has become one of the most widely debated policy issues in Japan. The debates have ranged from the topic of how should childcare be arranged, who should care for children under what circumstances, what should be the role of the state with respect to childcare, and how the cost of childcare should be arranged. For many outside observers the childcare system in Japan may appear quite generous (Boling 1998), and the current reform may seem to signify a further progressive step towards greater socialization of childcare. After all, about onefifth of all pre-school-age children in Japan are in public childcare, and the national figure shows that there are still more spaces available, as the total childcare enrolment rate is only about 87 per cent of the available spaces (Japan – Ministry of Health and Welfare 1998). However, a closer examination of the current childcare system and the nature of the recent reform reveals a rather different story
First, it is difficult to assess adequately the generosity of childcare provision simply by looking at figures. Having one-fifth of pre-school-age children attending public childcare may seem considerable if compared with the countries like the US, Canada or the Netherlands where the figures are below 10 per cent, but it is very low when compared with countries like Sweden, Denmark, and France, where over 25 per cent of pre-school-age children are in public day-care. Rather, the important issues related to the current childcare system and the recent reform in Japan have to do with the fact that the existing system is functionally and procedurally obsolete and has been in need of a reform for some time; but that the recent reform does not really address these issues. Instead of extending social care to families with small children, the reform has been used as a tool to achieve the state’s pronatalist and welfare state restructuring objectives. Procedurally, a large number of families with small children are unable to access public childcare because they do not meet the needs test, and functionally most of the public childcare centres are operating in a way that is no longer in keeping with the actual needs of the family. Although the childcare reform has been promoted as a policy to enable families to harmonize work and family responsibilities, the real goal is not about increasing
employment options for mothers nor ensuring a greater gender equality at home or in the labour market. Rather, the reform is more aimed at preventing possible social and economic problems that may arise from a continuing decline in the total national fertility rate and to introduce the concept of free market competition to an otherwise highly regulated system.