Making your way through the day-care system in Japan involves a pretty steep learning curve. There are a number of things I wish I had known early on, as in before even starting out. Here are my top pieces of advice for those just starting out:
1. Start early.
The best advice I can offer is to tell you to start early with your day care search AND your applications. And by early, I mean baby-in-the-womb early. I know this may sound overwhelming–I mean who wants to think about putting your child in someone else’s care before the baby is even born? No one. Certainly not me. But avoiding that uncomfortable fact landed me in some dire straits when it came to the time when I needed to find childcare. It is not a quick process in Tokyo to find good and affordable childcare, especially if you’re hoping to go the route of public day care. Starting early is going to be one of your best tools for success in this process.
If your goal is public day care (ninka), start with your backup plan—because you will need one. This means finding at least one or two private day cares (ninsho or mu-ninka) near you that you like. Then get your applications in early. You can always cancel an application, or turn down an offer of admission, but if you don’t have any application in, you’ll have to start from zero, and for many of the good private day cares, the wait can be over a year. So if you apply when your child is born, you still likely won’t get in until after your child’s first birthday.
The public day care application process is complicated by the fact that you have no chance of getting in if you don’t have a full-time job already—and even then it may take a year or more on the waiting list. Private day cares don’t care so much about whether you’re working or not as long as you can pay. (If you are looking to take advantage of the government subsidy for those attending ninsho, you will have to prove that you’re working full-time, of course.)
So for working parents who need day care and don’t have the time for the lengthy wait for ninka, you’ll need to first find a ninsho or mu-ninka day care with an opening and keep your child there until a spot opens at the public day cares. This also helps to up your points, which is a whole other game we’ll talk about soon. If you’re confused at all by all this ninka, ninsho, muninka talk, read a quick overview here.
2. Be very organized.
You really have to have your act together when applying to day cares here. There is a lot of paperwork, and it gets confusing and complicated no matter who you are–Japanese native included. Not to mention that you’ll likely end up applying to multiple places with different deadlines and requirements. The paperwork alone may do you in if you don’t keep on top of it. The more organized you are, the easier all of this will be. Go get some binders or folders or files—whatever system works for you. They will get filled up quickly.
3. Talk to mamas in your neighborhood.
As many of you probably already know, when you have a baby here, your world opens up quite a lot. The neighborhood folk warm to you, and you’ll find yourself being approached and engaged in conversation likely much more than before baby. You’ll also start to exchange nods and pleasantries with other mothers of young children in your neighborhood. As you get to know these moms on your walks around, or at the jidoukan, or in the playgrounds, ask them about what they know about day care. Tell them you’re looking for a good one in the neighborhood, or share what you know.
There is a mother in my neighborhood with a child just a few months younger than my daughter. She doesn’t work and her daughter is not in day care but still she has researched the system exhaustively and has been a source of really great tips and information for me. Because I’ve stopped to chat with her along my walks with my daughter, she knows I’ve been struggling to find childcare. Now, every time I see her she asks how things are going and tells me any new information she’s gathered. And in turn I share whatever information I have. Mamas like to exchange information. Especially if you can’t read Japanese and online searches are going to be timely and difficult for you, word-of-mouth is going to be an important resource for you. If you don’t speak Japanese, don’t let this thwart you. Most Japanese people speak better English then they let on; you’ll never know if you don’t ask.
4. Bug the heck out of your ward office.
You will need to visit the day care section or your ward office multiple times during this process. It really helps to get yourself known to these people. First go to get the application paperwork and ask questions. Then go back to have them check over your application before you submit and ask more questions. Then go back again to check on your application or to appeal to them and tell them why it’s so important that you get into the public day care system. While the decision-making process is mostly based on an objective point scale (more about that here), there seems to be some room for subjectivity in the selection process. And all successful applicants pretty much have the same point count in the end, so there’s got to be something that tips the scale in one family’s favor over another. It’s really worth getting the people at the ward office on your side, or making them feel like they want you out of their hair! I’ve heard both approaches work….