In some ways, you may find more obstacles in securing a reliable part-time daycare situation here than full-time, especially an affordable one. But there are options, and I’ll try to outline what I know below.
Japan’s public system (ninka) is really set up with an all-or-nothing attitude. You bring your child 5-days a week from 9am to 5pm or longer. The public system is made to support full-time working parents, and unfortunately has little flexibility for those with careers that fall outside of that box or who only need part-time care.
If you need reliable part-time day care, your best option is probably private day care. Although this isn’t always the most affordable choice, so it depends on your family’s personal needs and requirements. There are a few part-time public options—my daughter is currently enrolled in one such program—but they take some hoop jumping to get into. I’ll talk strategy in more detail in another post, but first let’s just go over the options.
Pretty much every day-care facility in Japan offers a full-time system, but not all offer part-time programs. Here’s what’s out there for public facilities:
Public, one-off day care
Some, but not all, public day cares in Tokyo (both hoikuen and kodomoen) offer part-time care. Of those that do, most have a sort of one-off system called ichijihoiku.
Unlike the ninka application for full-time care that goes through your ward office, the ichijihoiku applications are done directly with the day-care facility. This requires that you find a ninka day care near you that offers ichijihoiku, go to pick up an application (usually a simple one-page form), and then arrange a time to bring it in and meet with the head teacher for an interview (mensetsu) to answer some questions about your child, mostly in relation to eating and sleeping habits. The application process is not strict or lengthy, and as far as I know, they accept all applicants with children in the correct age range.
The kids in the ichijihoiku program are cared for in a separate room from the full-time kids at the same public facility, although in most cases they will likely interact somewhat during the day. Each ichijihoiku program has a limit to the number of kids it will take in one day, usually around ten children, and have quotas for how many kids are allowed from each age group. These limits are set at the beginning of the year. In most cases, the majority of space is for kids that fall in the age range of 1-2 years old.
At public day cares, the ichijihoiku reservation system is a monthly one, which means you have to apply one month in advance for the days you want. Also, you are not guaranteed to get the days you request because who gets what days is decided by a monthly lottery known as a chusenkai. As the ichijihoiku system is not specifically for working moms, anyone can sign up, and every month all the applicants get put in the same lottery pool together.
Note that this means that if a non-working parent can easily get a better lottery number than a working one and get more days for that month. Depending how many people are signed up at a day care and your lottery draw, there are months when you may get only one day or no days at all, so it’s quite a tough system unless you have a very flexible work life and can theoretically go a whole month without doing any work. There is usually a maximum number of days allowed as well for ichijihoiku, ranging between 3-10 days per month, set by each facility. Sometimes the maximum is set by the ward and so each month you’re only allowed a certain amount of days combined at all public facilities in that ward.
The way the lottery system is run varies per facility. Some of them ask a parent to come each month for an open lottery where you pick a number out of a bag or box and then everyone lines up according to their number order and submits their hoped-for days. In other cases, there’s an open period of two weeks or so when you can bring in the application/desired schedule for that month, and at that time you pick a number from a box or bag. Then after the application period closes and the applications are ranked based on the lottery numbers, you receive a letter from the ward office that tells you what days you got. For the former system, if you can’t make it on the day of the open lottery, you can request the facility act as a proxy and have a teacher pull a number for you.
One good thing about the ichijihoiku system is that you can sign up at as many day cares as you like at once. This may help maximize your chances of getting enough day care (it did for us for a while), but it requires a lot of running around to the various facilities to apply every month, not to mention you need a child who adapts easily to new environments. However, the cost is quite reasonable, usually somewhere from 2,300 to 3,600 yen for the entire day.
We used this system for about a year because I have a very flexible work schedule. It was great for us as long as I pulled good numbers in the lottery, but when I had a stretch of consecutive months with bad numbers in which I only received one or two days of day care a month, I felt the crunch badly. We then ended up enrolling my daughter in ichijihoiku programs at three different day cares, which meant I had to do a lot of running around every month submitting and picking up applications. And even then, there were months when we got almost no day care. It seemed like it was either feast or famine for us with ichijihoiku.
I don’t think ichijihoiku is a realistic long-term solution for working moms, but it can help for the interim, as it did for us. The application process is quick and easy, and once your application is accepted you can start applying for days the following month, so you have nothing like the lengthy wait that full-time applicants do at public or private day cares.
Tip: Many of the ichjihoiku programs have more availability in the first few months of the school year from April. This is because kids previously enrolled in ichijihoiku start new schools or day cares and spaces open up. If you’re planning to try it out, you can usually find more openings then.
Public, part-time, one-year contract in three-month installments
(teiki-riyou hoiku 定期利用保育)
A small number of public day cares offer a more reliable part-time option, although these are really quite few and far between in Tokyo at the moment. Some kodomoen have a program called teiki-riyou hoiku, which involves a three-month contract with a set weekly schedule. You can apply for care for anywhere from 1-6 days a week, for anytime during 9am-5pm. If you apply at the beginning of the school year for April admittance, you are given a three-month contract with the option to continue to renew for the entire year. Every three months you need to resubmit your application, and at that time you can adjust your request for more or less days.
This program gives priority to families with two working parents, and especially those who have applied to the full-time public system but haven’t been able to get in yet. They also give priority to families that need more time rather than less, so there will be kids enrolled who go every day and those who go two or three days a week.
The application process runs every three months, but once you apply and are accepted you can renew your application every three months over the next school year to extend your child’s stay. This program just started in Shinjuku ward this year, and my child is enrolled. Currently it’s only available at two day care facilities in Shinjuku, but this has been a sort of pilot year, so hopefully they will increase the facilities that offer teiki-riyou hoiku from next year. It is certainly a much better option than ichijihoiku for working moms. I think there is a program similar to this in Chiba-ken called tokutei-hoiku, although I am not familiar with the details.
The teiki-riyou hoiku application process requires that you show proof of both parents’ work contracts, as well as write out a sample weekly work schedule for cases where you have more than one employer or are self-employed, etc. If you work for a company in Japan, your employer will have to fill out a form to verify your working hours, and sign it with their seal (hanko/inkan) as is also necessary for the full-time ninka application. If you work for companies outside of Japan (as I do), you need to show proof of your work contracts and translate the most relevant points. Finally you are asked to submit a schedule request form (provided) with the exact days and hours you need over the three-month period.
The application for teiki-riyou hoiku is due in March, after the announcement is made about whether those who applied into the full-time ninka system have gotten in or not. After you submit your application, the ward office ranks you somehow in relation to need (with those needing more hours getting higher ranking), but they still use a lottery system in the final decision or who gets in and what days of the ones you requested you get. The goods news is that it’s not a long wait; you find out the same week that you apply if you got in and what days you got. In Shinjuku, this system is still young, in its first year, so they may still make adjustment to it as it grows in popularity. If you don’t make the first application period in March, it opens up again every three months. In Shinjuku, the application periods are the first weeks of March, June, September, and December. You apply directly at the kodomoen facility but the applications are handled by a ward office official who comes in for that week.
Unlike the full-time public ninka system, where your cost is based on your income, the cost of teiki-riyou hoiku is set and based on the hours needed. In Shinjuku, for 2013-2014, they charge 52,800 yen for up to 192 hours a month (essentially full-time), 44,000 yen for up to 160 hours a month, 35,200yen for up to 128 hours a month, and so on. Unlike the full-time public program that has early and late hours, the kids in teiki-riyou hoiku must attend between the hours from 9am to 5pm. The can come later or be picked up earlier, of course, just not the other way around.
The teiki-riyou hoiku class is separate from the full-time kids and combined with the ichijihoiku class. It will be a mixed age class. In Shinjuku, the breakdown is currently one infant, four to five children in the 1-2 year age range, and one (or none) in the 3-5 age range. Again, this program is only offered at two day cares right now, but will hopefully grow from next year. There is certainly a need for a reliable and affordable part-time program like this. We have been using this program since it’s inception in April and have been very happy so far.
Tip: The more days you need, the easier it will be to get into this program.