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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004
Ishihara tries to counter city's birthrate-unfriendly nature
Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara would probably be happy to learn that when Mayumi Ozaki's 2-year-old daughter caught a cold, her minder went to the girl's home and looked after her for two days.
Certainly Ozaki, 31, was pleased. "It's great that Miari's minder comes home to take care of her. Miari would be scared to have a stranger at home."
Ozaki, a working mother, usually leaves her daughter from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Kids Plaza ASC Takadanobaba. "I really appreciate their flexibility," she said.
Ishihara hopes women like Ozaki will help raise Tokyo's birthrate from the 1.00 marked last year against Japan's national average 1.29.
His answer is to help nursery schools that choose not to be nationally accredited.
Accredited nursery schools have to comply with the Child Welfare Law. Under it, schools must be completely subsidized by governments and are forbidden from turning a profit, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Ishihara began providing financial support to nursery schools in 2001, and now such beneficiaries number 232.
The budget to support nursery schools has surged to 4.64 billion yen for fiscal 2004, from zero in fiscal 2000.
"We have expanded the program a lot, and would like to expand it more," said Naoki Machida, a spokesman at the child welfare division of the metropolitan government.
Nursery school operators in Tokyo appreciate the policy.
"Tokyo's new system is very good for parents as well as school operators," said Takahiro Kuga, chairman of Kodomonomori Inc., which runs 13 unaccredited nursery schools receiving Tokyo's financial aid and also owns nationally accredited nursery schools.
The Tokyo government imposes stricter rules that reflect the demand of parents. One is that nursery schools must be open longer than 13 hours, while nationally accredited ones can be open 11.
Tokyo also requires nursery schools to accept babies younger than 1 year old. The Child Welfare Law has no such rule.
So Tokyo seems to be doing working mothers a favor.
But Ishihara needs to do more. Tokyo has 5,223 children waiting to be accepted in nationally accredited nursery schools, the ministry said.
"What Tokyo is doing is better than nothing, but it should have a bigger sense of crisis," said Masako Atsumi, director of the Tokyo-based Center for the Advancement of Working Women. "People in big cities tend not to have big families, so they can't count on help from grandparents."
At least, those who are fortunate to have their toddlers accepted in nursery schools are satisfied.
Ozaki, who got pregnant with Miari a few months after her marriage, is using the nursery school to cope with changes in her life.
"First, I quit work because my daughter was so cute," said Ozaki, whose 31-year-old government-employee husband usually comes home around 3 a.m. "Then, I wanted to show my daughter that working and being a mother are compatible."
She said she was lucky to find Kids Plaza ASC Takadanobaba. It feeds the kids dinner, keeps them as late as 11 p.m., is open on weekends, and gives kids medicine, Ozaki said.
Her situation appears to be agreeable, but it is not necessarily one other young workers in Tokyo experience. In fact, the realities of life in Tokyo may be working against efforts to reverse Japan's aging population.
The population under 15 will account for less than 14 percent in 2005, and 10.8 percent in 2050, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in January 2002.
To an individual like Satoko Yamada, 31, married for eight years, the reason for not having a baby yet comes down to "fear of many changes in lifestyle involved in family planning."
The Tokyo resident is typical of working wives with no kids. She has a full-time job that usually keeps her at work from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
She is aware that selecting nursery schools and doing many other things for children is "absolutely necessary." But she worries about the 30-year mortgage on the house she and her husband bought last year.
Tokyo continues to attract people in their 20s and 30s like Yamada, who are seeking work and study opportunities, from other prefectures, said Shiro Koike, who is in charge of prefectural population estimates at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
Although Tokyo's working-age population is rising, the number of kids under 15 has already begun falling and will keep dropping, Koike said.
The situation suggests that the capital is responsible for Japan's aging society because the city is creating generations of young people who choose not to have kids.
Koike said that besides creating more nursery schools, governments need to implement mandatory and much longer maternity and paternity leaves as well as other incentives.