The Basics: Ninka, Ninsho, Mu-Ninka

For anyone stepping into the labyrinth of Japan’s day-care system, a basic understanding of how the system works is key. It’s a complicated, bureaucratic system that can be clumsy to navigate, even for native Japanese speakers.
Japan’s day-care facilities can be loosely categorized into one of three classifications.

Ninka (認可)
Facility operation: Public             Funding: Subsidized

As public facilities, standards tend to be quite high at ninka day cares. Teachers are all licensed and have passed a series of exams to work there. Fees are on a sliding scale based on income, which vary per ward. (In Shinjuku-ku, fees start around 7000 yen a month and are capped at around 70,000 yen a month for those in the highest income brackets.) Household with average incomes tend to pay around 50,000 yen a month for full-time day care, five days a week, for a child in the 0 to 2 year old range. For the most part, ninka day cares are the cheapest option but they are also the hardest kind to get into in Tokyo. Once you’re in though, the fees actually decrease every year, as your child ages, which is another reason why families across the city are scrambling to get in.

The application requirements for ninka state that you must be working at least three days a week, but the reality is that both parents have to be working full-time to have a chance of getting in as families are awarded entrance based on need and the competition is stiff.

To complicate things, there are two types of ninka facilities: hoikuen (保育園) and kodomoen (子ども園). These are both municipally-run. Please see here for an explanation on the difference between the two. The majority of public day cares are operated by the ward municipal governments, but there are also some ninka that are privately operated, usually by religious or academic institutions. Although privately-run, these ninka are still public facilities since they can only be applied to through the public system, which means are subject to the same application process and fees as the ones run by the municipals.

When applying to ninka, you only need to fill out one application form, in which you are asked to rank the public day cares in your ward that you hope to gain entrance to.  You are encouraged to list numerous facilities, as it’s often quite difficult to get your first choice.

The strength of your application is judged on a point scale that’s based on how much you work and your lifestyle circumstances. (This is explained in more detail here.) Once submitted, your application goes into the system and is good for 6 months. If you do not get in within that time frame, you have to reapply. For a rundown on the ninka application process, click here.

Ninsho(認証)                                                                                                   Facility operation: Private  Funding: Partially Subsidized

The ninsho day cares are privately owned and operated facilities that are recognized by the government, which means that most enrollees are eligible for a government subsidy to help offset the extra cost. The fees for most ninsho start around the top tier of the public system’s sliding scale–somewhere in the range of 70,000 yen. Many ninsho day cares also have a one-time entrance fee (nyuukaikin 入会金) as well, usually starting around 20,000 yen, but sometimes more depending on the facility.

Most ninsho day care offer a few different course options, based on the amount of time you need per month. However, most are all still geared toward full-time working parents. The one in my neighborhood starts at 160 hours per month (approximately 8 hours a day, 5 days a week) for the minimum sign up. This varies per place, of course, in general they want full-time enrollees, although many have programs for 3 days a week or 4 days a week too. However, most aren’t as strict about whether you have to be actually working full-time or at all. (But you will need to prove you are working full-time to be eligible for the government subsidy.) If you have the money to pay the higher fees at ninsho, and the patience to go through the application process and wait as long as it takes (it may be over a year), you’ll eventually get in somewhere.

In the case of ninsho day cares, the application is done directly with the facility. This requires you going at least once for a visit and to pick up the application, and then again to submit it. Some ninsho may also have required meetings that parents must attend before applying.

Facility operation: Private     Funding: Non-subsidized

The mu-ninka day cares are all privately owned and operated. Families enrolled here are not eligible for any government subsidy. A range of different day cares fall into this category, and their standards of care and fee structures vary widely.

There are definitely a number of good mu-ninka out there, but you need to do your due diligence and research and visit them before applying. Also, be prepared to pay more than you would at the ninka or ninsho. Like the ninsho, you don’t have to be working full-time to have your child accepted full-time here; as long as you can pay the fees, and they have space for you, you should be able to get in. Some parents use these as a temporary solution while waiting for entrance to a ninka. Some mu-ninka will offer part-time programs as well.

In the case of mu-ninka day cares, the application is done directly with the facility. This requires you going at least once for a visit and to pick up the application, and then again to submit it. Some mu-ninka may also have required meetings that parents must attend before applying.

Just Starting Out? Advice.

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….