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Thursday, July 15, 2004

MATTER OF COURSE

Japan's kindergartens could serve families better


Procreation just ain't what it used to be.

Last month, the Japanese government announced that the nation's birthrate fell in 2003 to an all-time low of 1.29. The rate, which measures the average number of times a woman gives birth in her lifetime, dropped from the previous low in 2002 of 1.32. Here in Tokyo, the birthrate is just 0.9978, which means the capital has the dubious distinction of being the first area in the country with a fertility rate below 1.

This was in the newspapers the morning I went to Yokohama to visit my friend Keiko, so I happened to mention it over lunch. What a mistake! My casual remark set off a furious tirade about how she couldn't find a yochien (kindergarten) for her daughter.

"I tried every kindergarten within reasonable commuting distance but couldn't get her in anywhere!" she complained. "There simply aren't enough spaces, particularly for 3-year-olds." Keiko was getting loud. People in the restaurant were starting to stare. "Did you know that at one yochien parents camped out in line for two weeks before registration?" Keiko pointed her fork at me. "Shoshika wa doko? (Who says no one is having kids?)"

I understand her point. Since the birthrate has been declining for years, you'd think that kindergartens would be begging for business. But the fact of the matter is that the number of yochien, too, has been falling. And because of population shifts within major cities, there's an acute shortage of kindergartens in areas that attract young families, including "new towns" that offer affordable housing and older neighborhoods that have erected large-scale apartment complexes in recent years. Meanwhile, kindergartens elsewhere have been forced to close for a lack of pupils. Last year alone, 105 yochien around the nation shut down.

Compulsory education in Japan begins at age 6, with the first grade of elementary school, so if you want your child to attend kindergarten you have to foot the bill yourself. More than half of the nation's 14,000 preschools are shiritsu (private) yochien, many of which have a Buddhist or Christian affiliation. There are also 5,736 koritsu (public) yochien operated by local municipalities, and 49 kokuritsu (national) yochien attached to universities. The cost difference between public and private schools can be substantial. Where I live, public kindergarten costs just 6,000 yen a month. Private kindergartens, on the other hand, cost 26,000 yen to 35,000 yen per month for the same hours. And that doesn't include the hefty entrance fee (500,000 yen to 110,000 yen) or the annual building maintenance charges.

According to a national survey on educational expenses, most families are paying more than 40,000 yen a month to send one child to kindergarten.

You'd think that with that kind of price differential, public yochien would have no trouble attracting pupils. But in my ward, three of our 15 public kindergartens will close at the end of the school year, all due to insufficient enrollment. One is the kindergarten my younger son attended a few years ago. I thought the birthrate was to blame, but other parents straightened me out. The real problem, they explained, is that our yochien isn't offering what families want most: care for 3-year-olds.

Until recently, most yochien offered ninen hoiku, a two-year program for 4- and 5-year-olds. But Japanese households have become smaller, with fewer children per family, and the grandparents are more likely to be living on their own.

There's also less interaction with neighbors than there used to be, and young children can end up being isolated at home alone with their mothers. Parents are now looking for opportunities to let their children interact with others from a younger age.

In response, some yochien, particularly private ones, introduced sannen hoiku, a three-year program for kids aged 3 to 5. Although the overall number of children in kindergarten has been dropping steadily since 1985, the number of 3-year-olds has been rising steadily. There are now about 40,000 3-year-olds attending yochien, forming 22.7 percent of the overall kindergarten population.

In an effort to save my son's kindergarten, parents requested that the program be changed so that 3-year-olds can attend, too. This was done a few years ago at another public yochien in our ward, and the program proved immensely popular. All of its places were filled immediately, and it's the only public yochien in our ward with a waiting list. But the board of education has refused to introduce sannen hoiku at any of our other public yochien. Why? Because private kindergartens complained that public funds were being used to undercut them.

I think that's pretty nervy given that private schools are getting their fair share of pork: parents who want to send their child to a private kindergarten in the ward can apply to the local government for generous subsidies (9,500 yen to 15,700 yen a month) to help offset the higher cost. And some parents will always prefer private yochien, regardless of cost, because they tend to offer more academic programs and extras like English lessons, swimming and transportation.

Recently, Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi promised to combat the falling birthrate by supporting families, including ensuring that all young children have access to day care and kindergarten. Unfortunately, that's not how it's working out where I live. When those three yochien close, parents will have no choice but to travel farther to another public kindergarten or pay big money for a private kindergarten.

Of course, they might just choose not to have children.

Last month I wrote about the challenges of finding something for my older son to do in the summer and asked readers if they knew of programs suitable for foreign kids, particularly during the weeks when Japanese schools are still in session but international schools have closed. I got a few leads:

Global Kids Academy offers Japanese- and English-language classes, summer camp and a Tokyo adventure program. There are three sessions between June 7 and Aug. 20. (03) 5447-1913. www.globalkidsacademy.com

The New Center for Creative Arts offers bilingual summer camp programs in movement, drawing, painting, calligraphy and performing arts. (03) 5485-8524. www.rbr-art.com

The Tokyo Baptist Church will hold a music day camp for English-speaking children, Aug. 9-13. (03) 3461-8425. www.tokyobaptist.org

I got far more mail on my son's question: "If you had a choice, would you rather be eaten by ants or lions?"

Interestingly, most of the responses were from adult males who seemed to identify strongly with my son's adolescent sense of humor. I won't venture any theories on why that might be, but I will report that nearly everyone said they'd prefer to be eaten by lions, either because it would be over faster or because it would be insulting to be lunch for ants. And a few respondents said ants deserved a break since they're so hardworking.



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