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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001

MORE ALTERNATIVES, BUT ARE THEY ENOUGH?

Nurseries striving to meet working moms' needs


Staff writer

With its pink furniture and floral wallpaper, Kasumigaseki Nursery looks like any other day-care center. But step out the door and you're in the heart of the nation's bureaucratic capital, with swaths of elite government workers in gray suits scurrying about.

A child-care worker feeds children at Kasumigaseki Nursery.

The nursery, which opened Friday (Oct. 19) in the annex building of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry in Chiyoda Ward, is the first of its kind for the children of national civil servants.

It is also unique in its attempt to serve children near their parents' workplace. Traditionally, working parents have had few options other than putting their children in day-care centers close to home.

"Nurseries in my neighborhood are open only until 7 p.m. or so," said 36-year-old Yuko Nagano, an education ministry bureaucrat now on one-year maternity leave who is planning to return to work in January. The new nursery is open until 10 p.m., accommodating bureaucrats' long work hours.

"It's nice to have a nursery near the workplace, because I can pick my boy up easily when he gets sick," she said.

The birth of the facility, proposed by the ministry's mutual-aid association and run by a private company, also illustrates that the metropolis has finally begun to cope with working parents' needs for quality and longer child care at a reasonable cost.

Spurred by the recent population growth in central Tokyo, various moves by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and ward governments are now under way to offer expanded day-care services to respond to the needs of working parents.

The populations of Chiyoda, Chuo and Minato wards saw decades of decline as people moved to the suburbs in search of more affordable housing. But the burst of the bubble economy in the early 1990s and falling land prices have brought people back -- including families with small children -- in recent years.

For example, Chuo Ward saw its population swell from 63,967 in 1996 to 73,466 this year amid a rush of condominium construction.

"Residential housing is available at 60 percent of what it cost at the peak of the bubble era," said Kenichi Kato, a Chuo Ward spokesman. "As more families move to our ward, there is an increased need for expanded measures on child care."

In response, the ward has extended the hours at public-run nurseries by one to two hours, and has increased the capacity at some of them.

Chiyoda and Taito wards, meanwhile, have announced plans to consolidate kindergartens with some of their nurseries. Kindergartens, which typically offer five hours of service on weekdays, have been losing their appeal nationwide as more mothers take jobs. The consolidation is aimed at providing longer child-care services.

Public day-care centers have played a central role in helping Japan's working parents. Because they must meet myriad tightly defined conditions, ranging from the number of nurses per child to the minimum size of the building and play area, parents feel more secure about their child-care services.

But cash-strapped municipal governments have been slow to respond to the need for more nurseries and nighttime care. Most public day-care centers stay open only until 6:30 p.m.

Left with no alternative, many working parents have sought refuge in private baby hotels, which are open around the clock, or hire baby sitters if they can afford it.

Against this backdrop, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government started a program this year aimed at providing quality day care at low cost -- with the help of private companies.

The metropolitan government, together with ward and city governments, offers an incentive for firms opening nurseries in convenient locations.

Companies receive subsidies if they meet certain conditions, such as the nurseries are located within five minutes of train stations, are open at least 13 hours a day and more than 60 percent of the nurses work full time.

At these semipublic day-care centers, requirements are more lenient than at public nurseries, where full-timers must account for 80 percent of the staff.

Seven nurseries have opened under the program since August, and the metropolitan government plans to increase the number to 50 in the next four years.

At Pinokio Yojisha Myogadani-en, one such nursery that opened Sept. 1 in Bunkyo Ward, parents can drop off and pick up their kids right outside Myogadani Station on the Marunouchi Line. The facility is in an office building, with large glass windows looking out on a busy street.

Unlike public facilities, the day-care center has no sandbox or outdoor play area of its own, so the children must be escorted to a public park nearby.

"I know (it's not the best environment for kids)," said Saori Tsuji, a 26-year-old Bunkyo Ward resident and mother of a 2-year-old girl who goes to the nursery. "But I can't complain. I waited six months to put my kid in day care. Public nurseries in my neighborhood were all booked up."

Some public nurseries now offer unique services in addition to extended hours.

Shinagawa Ward is considered a forerunner in child care, providing services until 10 p.m. at four of its 37 facilities.

Since Higashi-Gotanda Nursery School started nighttime service in April 1999, parents have become more interested in what their children do individually, said Vice Principal Masashi Ishii.

"Parents these days want to know exactly how their children spend their day with us, probably because they spend less time with them on weekdays," Ishii said.

The nursery tries to provide parents with the most up-to-date information on their children's activities, he said.

When events such as athletic meets or parties are held, staff members take pictures of the children with digital cameras and post them on the wall by 4 p.m., so parents can see the pictures when they pick up their kids.

"Our office turns into a madhouse as we approach the evening," Ishii said.

The nursery is also preparing to be registered for ISO 9001, an international standard assuring the quality of management systems. It would be the first public nursery in Japan to acquire the status. The registration process requires the nursery to write up all management policies, ranging from how diapers are changed to accident-prevention measures.

Ishii said public nurseries should improve their service quality or they may someday lose out to the private sector.

As the nation's population dwindles, there will be intense competition among nurseries, he said, pointing out that personnel costs for public day-care centers in Shinagawa Ward are three times higher than for private enterprises.

"Public nurseries have long lacked awareness that they are part of the service industry," Ishii said. "With more private companies entering the field, we must improve the quality of services to survive the coming competition."



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