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Friday, July 13, 2001

MATTER OF COURSE

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Working parents need after-school care


Where do Japanese children go after school when both parents work? Some go home to a grandparent who lives with the family or in the neighborhood. Some go to an after-school program. But many are kagikko (latchkey children), who go home to an empty house or apartment because their parents aren't able to find a better arrangement.

In Japan, it is both common and socially acceptable for children to stay home alone for a few hours. But elementary school children are released from school as early as 1:30 in the afternoon. Parents who can't get home from work until evening usually feel that is too long for a young child to be alone.

If they are lucky, working parents can secure a place for their child in an after-school program. Many municipalities, particularly in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, offer after-school programs housed either in the school or a nearby facility.

Demand in Japan for after-school care started in the 1950s, during the period of rapid economic expansion. Many workers migrated from the countryside to cities to work in factories. As they moved to dense urban housing, the number of multigenerational households decreased. Neighbors were less likely to know each other, so mothers couldn't just ask the neighbors to watch the kids. Traffic increased, and with more unfamiliar faces in the neighborhood, many parents became uneasy about letting their kids roam.

In response to demands from working women and children's advocates, some local governments set up after-school centers in large apartment buildings. Others built jidokan, municipal children's halls where kids can play safely. There are now more than 4,300 jidokan in Japan, and usage has been climbing in recent years, despite the overall decline in the number of children.

My children love to go to the jidokan near our home, one of 12 public children's halls in Tokyo's Minato Ward. It is a two-story building with separate rooms for crafts, reading and general rough-housing.

There are Ping-Pong tables, climbing ropes, tumbling mats and unicycles. Cooking and craft activities are offered every month, and there are books, board games and computer games available. Childcare professionals supervise, and my kids always find friends to play with.

Located in a highly urban area, this jidokan has no yard for outdoor play, but there is a paved play space on the roof, perfect for roller-skating and hockey. In the summer, it accommodates a small pool.

Children age 6 and older can go to the jidokan without a parent. Younger children can go if accompanied by an adult, and there are organized activities for preschoolers when the older children are in school.

Although residents can use the facilities on a drop-in basis, these 12 jidokan also house after-school programs accommodating a total of 430 students in the first through third grade.

At our school, parents who need after-school care apply for the gakudo kurabu (pupil's club) at a jidokan about a 10-minute walk from the school. Children of full-time workers get preference, but part-timers are also eligible if space permits.

When school is dismissed, students in the gakudo kurabu make their own way to the jidokan along Tokyo's busy streets. They stow their school gear in cubbies and have a snack. Some do their homework, but most go straight to play.

Kids in the club can stay at the jidokan until 6 p.m. (drop-ins have to head home at 5 p.m.). A few parents pick up their kids on their way home from work, but most kids leave on their own. Some may be home alone for another two hours before their parents come in the door from work.

What does this care cost? Currently, parents pay just 2,000 yen per month to cover the cost of snacks. Low-income families don't have to pay even that.

During summer vacation, which runs from mid-July until the end of August, kids enrolled in the gakudo kurabu can stay at the jidokan from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Parents pack a lunch and pay only the same modest fee for snacks.

Sound ideal? The trouble is that demand far exceeds the number of available spaces.

This year, so many first-graders applied for our jidokan's program that administrators had to "encourage" parents of third-graders not to reapply. Even so, there were too many applicants and a few extra pupils were admitted. Of the 53 first-graders in our school, 25 are in the gakudo kurabu at the jidokan. Local labor statistics suggest our situation is typical: Here in Tokyo, half of women with children ages 6 to 14 work.

A recent survey found there are about 416,000 elementary school students enrolled in 11,400 after-school facilities in Japan. Many programs have waiting lists, and demand is believed to be even greater because so many parents don't even bother to get listed. It's difficult to find sitters who will watch kids after school. Reluctantly, many parents let their kids return to an empty home.

A government panel on gender equality recently recommended that 15,000 new after-school facilities be created over the next three years. In a general policy address on May 7, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the government would increase the number of after-school programs as part of its effort to support working women. The plan is to house the programs in classrooms left vacant by the decline in the number of schoolchildren, and for private companies and nongovernmental organizations to manage them.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.


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