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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2004

Workplace nurseries finding fledgling footing

Firms admit they need facilities, but face hurdles


Staff writer

Decor fit for a trendy beauty salon. A breathtaking view of autumn leaves in a sprawling city park.

News photo
Toddlers play with staff at a nursery run by the cosmetics firm Shiseido Co. in Tokyo's Shiodome business district.

Two recent additions to central Tokyo nurseries -- one built by Shiseido Co. and the other by Shinsei Bank for their employees' children -- break all the stereotypes of Japanese day-care centers. They also attest to growing corporate awareness that it pays to help employees balance family and work.

The most unique feature of Kangaroom, opened in September by cosmetic giant Shiseido, is its aesthetics. The 230-sq.-meter nursery is located on the first floor of an office building in the Shiodome business district, surrounded by soaring skyscrapers. Inside, fluorescent light balls hang from the high ceiling. A giant red circular sofa, where kids can jump up and down, gives the place a salonlike feeling.

Shiseido -- where women make up 70 percent of the firm's 25,600 employees -- opened a nursery to advance its corporate ideal of promoting the participation of women in society, company officials said.

"It is crucial for us to keep our female employees' morale high so we can retain their services and prevent the loss of our 'intellectual property,' " said Tetsuo Ando, a Shiseido official in charge of the nursery.

The company spent 50 million yen on the site's makeover, which seems to have paid off, at least in terms of publicity. In the three months since its opening, Ando has been able to brag about the nursery to nearly 200 visitors from the media, think tanks and companies interested in offering similar services for their employees.

It charges 50,000 yen a month for full-time care and 1,000 yen an hour for care on a spot basis. Services are provided by a private nursery operator. The firm has also tied up with frozen-food maker Nichirei Corp. and advertising agency Dentsu Inc. to care for their employees' children.

If Kangaroom leads the pack with its fashion consciousness, Shinsei Bank's Hibiya Kids Park gains an edge from its postcard view of Hibiya Park in Chiyoda Ward.

The nursery, opened in September on the bank's third floor, overlooks an urban oasis that has long provided a refuge for the city's stressed office workers.

Shinsei has broken with tradition by offering its child-care services, including laundry, for free.

Taiga Yoshioka, manager of Shinsei's human resources division, said it makes economic sense.

The annual operating cost of 10 million yen is less than the costs associated with losing capable female staff and having to hire and train replacements, he said. At Shinsei, two to three female employees quit every month to raise children.

Shizuyo Eguchi, a 33-year-old Shinsei employee and mother of an 18-month-old boy, said her public nursery in Meguro Ward closes at 6:45 p.m. In contrast, Shinsei's is open until 9 p.m., allowing her to bring her son to the workplace when she needs to work overtime. Having a nursery at the office also allows her to check up on her son during lunchtime, Eguchi said.

Mika Ikemoto, a senior researcher at Japan Research Institute, said Shiseido and Shinsei Bank are prime examples of corporations that are "getting serious about utilizing female talent -- at last."

"Companies today face growing demands, especially from overseas (stakeholders), to fulfill their social responsibility," she said. "The moves to create workplace nurseries reflect their readiness to meet such demands pre-emptively."

Ikemoto, however, said don't expect a rush by companies to build workplace nurseries. With the weak economy weighing heavily on corporate finances, more firms are closing down day-care facilities than opening them. The government has also committed itself to building more public nurseries, and private child-care centers are playing a growing role, she added.

Statistics from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry show the number of workplace nurseries rose through the 1990s, from 2,684 in 1992 to 3,622 in 2000, but dropped to 3,534 in 2001.

Workplace nurseries -- especially in central Tokyo -- are not without inconveniences. The thought of traveling with children on a packed rush-hour train scares most working parents. At Shinsei's facility, only six kids are enrolled full time, while the Shiseido nursery cares for four children full time. But both facilities care for additional children on a spot basis and expect to take in more on a full-time basis next year.

Ai Kondo, a 31-year-old Shiseido operator, said her one-hour commute with her 14-month-old son from Kawasaki can be physically taxing.

"When I take the train, I make sure I secure a space in a connecting area between cars so I can stand without being shoved by other passengers," she said.

Still, Kondo doesn't regret her decision to bring her child to work. "My son looks so happy there," she said. "I want to keep him in this nursery."



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