Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Nonsense In The New York Times

The Japanese daycare in crisis story rears its ugly head again, this time in an article by Hiroko Tabuchi.
They turned instead to the government-subsidized child care centers, where their collective needs led to a nationwide waiting list that is now more than 25,000 places long. The government estimates the waiting lists for all types of day care would be tens of thousands of names longer, but that many families have given up.

Increasingly, families try private unsubsidized day care centers, which can be twice as expensive despite sometimes offering lower standards of care. But in Japan's cities, even private centers are hopelessly oversubscribed.

Some families are so anxious to get into public day care that they upend their lives, moving to districts known to have the shortest waiting lists.

I do not know where Ms. Tabuchi is getting her numbers. It is clearly not from the authorities. Had she taken the time to look at the relevant government publication (Link - J) she would probably have noted somewhere that insufficient public daycare slots are a Tokyo Metropolitan District problem. Yes there are some 25,000 (maybe) children on waiting lists nationwide. About a third of that national number, however, will be on waiting lists inside the TMD.

Now that the lack of spots exists inside the TMD is relevant for managers of non-Japanese companies who intend to employ Japanese women, as most of these foreign representative offices and subsidiaries are located in Tokyo.

To talk about the TMD's problem as Japan's is a misrepresentation.

Second, Tabuchi fails to nail down the reason why competition for spaces in public daycare facilities has increased in Tokyo. Rather than rely on statistical evidence, she relies on the anecdotal evidence from one parent whom, when one reads the article, one realizes to be a bit...extreme in her attempt to secure a spot for her daughter -- and the testimony of advocacy groups, which, while better than nothing, still tend to be in support of particular narratives.

Birth statistics for the TMD seem to indicate, furthermore that the narrative of women being forced into the workforce by the decline in the economic security of their spouses and partners is probably a false one.

Here is the graph of births in the Tokyo Metropolitan District, by age cohort, from 1960 onward.

(Source -- click on the image to enlarge)

Look at the upward swoop in the births for women in the 20-24 and 25-29 cohorts until the mid-1960s (I have marked the two curves with a red circle and a green triangle, for clarity), and the incredible collapse of the numbers since the late 1960s.

By contrast, look at the number of children being born to women in between the ages of 30 and 34 (the dotted line): basically unchanged since 1980 (Showa 55).

Meanwhile the number of children born to women in the 35-39 cohort has risen rapidly, while at the bottom, the number of babies being born to women in the 40-44 years of age cohort now exceeds the number of babies being born to Tokyoites in the 20-24 cohort!

What is going on then? There is a decline in the number of women under 30 years of age, meaning there are fewer women in the youngest cohorts. However, the decline of the number of young women in Tokyo is in no way commensurate with the collapse in the number of births among Tokyoites under 30 years of age.

Most likely we are seeing a strong correlation of childbearing not with population, work or wealth but with marriage and fertility. The stigma against out-of-wedlock births and the crushing of potential earnings such births normally provoke are strong incentives toward delaying initial births until after marriage -- which for Tokyoites means sometime after one is 30 years of age.

What happens when women are in the work force for a decade before they have their first child? Those women will have careers -- which means that these women will be in jobs they want to keep. It also means women must squeeze a lifetime's worth of births into not just a shorter span of time, but a span of time when their fertility is falling.

So demand for daycare has risen rapidly, even as the total number of births have stayed steady and total number of births per woman have been declining.

Where Tabuchi's article really fails the reader is in giving a sense of how hard national and local governments have been working to expand public daycare over the last two decades. The buildout since the bottom in 2001 (Link-J) should be a source of national and local pride. That the number of centers, workers and spaces available has increased, shrinking the waiting lists even as the number of children seeking places increases 3% per year and the demands for services from senior citizens -- the folks who turn out at the voting places on election day -- are increasing even faster, is simply astonishing.

A crisis? A problem? Actually, daycare in Japan is an example of the system working, despite enormous odds.

Of course, a more accurate account would not fit into global master narratives of the sexism of Japanese institutions, Japan's inability to change, Japan's unresponsive and flailing government...


Anonymous said...

"A crisis? A problem? Actually, daycare in Japan is an example of the system working, despite enormous odds".

Yes, you are right the system is working, but rather than as you say, it is working remarkably well at potentially screwing up careers, child rearing plans, and convenience.

In our own case, we visited around 25 centres and then applied for five or six.

We were accepted for none of them so are now going to have to carry our baby through rush hour traffic to a centre near work (different ku) (they had 3 places left). I can't tell you how much we are looking forward to this: chuo line and the yamanote line. It is unimaginable.

Plans for No.2 now seem to be on hold, and without finding the other place I think my wife would have to quit her job.

Please don't try and peddle this nonsense in front of her or her momatomos - none of whom actually secured a place - they will probably rip you to shreds.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

It all depends on where one lives and one's ability to work the system. That there are children on waiting lists is true. That many parents have to put their children into private daycare when they would prefer public is true. That there is at this moment a seemingly huge mismatch in between applicants for public hoikuen in the TMD and spaces (the selection has only gone through one round; there will be another round before the April fiscal new year) is troubling -- but it is not for a lack of trying by the authorities. Suginami-ku managed to eliminate its waiting list, then was rewarded by a wave of young families moving into the ward, convinced they could put their child into daycare, swamping the system all over again.

What one cannot say is that the system does not work for most of the country or that the authorities are not responding to the problem.

Your own family's problems are serious now and I sympathize. These problems will likely work out in a year or so. The limit of three zerosaiji per caregiver means that there will always be a premium of spaces for newborns. If you look at the government report, however, the numbers of children older than one still on waiting lists is tiny.

Do also remember that unless you are from a Nordic country or from a family-friendly country like France, your current predicament is one you would not have -- because childcare in most countries is an afterthought.

MTC said...

jjrs -

You left this comment in the comments section of another post. I repost your question here in italics.


You say-

>"Yes there are some 25,000 (maybe) children on waiting lists nationwide. About a third of that national number, however, will be on waiting lists inside the TMD."

Well that would make sense, considering that 29% of Japan's population lies in the the TMD to begin with. So I fail to see your big take-down point here. The share of children waiting in the TMD isn't far off what you would expect proportionately anyway.

According to the Ministry of General Affairs and Telecommunications, the population of Japan in February 2013 is 127,400,000 persons. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the population of the TMD in January 2013 was 13,222,760 persons. That looks to me like the TMD has 10.4% of the total population.

Now as to particular age cohorts, the TMD may have a higher percentage of young adults...but 29% of the national total?

MTC said...

Anonymous -

Sorry, that should have said, "the number of children older than two still on waiting lists is tiny."

jjrs said...

My mistake- I thought you meant the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, which is near 36 million now. But the actual number of children in need of childcare is likely much higher than 20,000 anyway-

And by other estimates there are 20,000 kids waiting in Tokyo *alone*. It's a real problem that needs to be addressed here, and not just in Tokyo city. I can attest that there are several places in Japan where it's hard to get day care.

But beyond that, you say-

>To talk about the TMD's problem as Japan's is a misrepresentation.

Given that Tokyo is the only area of Japan set to actually increase in population over the coming decades, it's a stretch to say that discussing this as a problem of Japan's is a "misrepresentation". Other districts are aging and depopulating steadily, making Tokyo the epicenter for child care in Japan even more than it's already the epicenter for most everything else here.

You seem to feel that this article was written as part of a "global narrative of Japan's flailing government". I would like to point out that it was in fact written by someone who, unlike yourself, is a) Japanese and b) a woman working full-time in Tokyo who likely has to think about this in relation to how she can have kids herself. The reality of having to deal with it first-hand is a far more plausible incentive for concern here than "sensationalization". You might think you're defending Japan from a misleading western media, but in actuality what you're doing is trivializing a real problem that a lot of families here have to deal with.

Rob Fahey said...

Is it not possible to take a view that the system is both hugely laudable for its rapid creation and adaptation, and yet still "in crisis" from the point of view of a great many end-users? "Crisis" is a very subjective term; where a bureaucrat can reasonably see a system that's come from nowhere to satisfy a large percentage of users in a short space of time as being an immense success from his subjective standpoint, the many thousands of families being failed by the same system can equally reasonably term it as being "in crisis" from their subjective standpoint.

Granted, it's important to understand that context and very little of the coverage of this issue presents it well, if at all. However, I don't think it's unfair for the media to focus on the problems faced by families who still can't find childcare - if anything, they're playing an important role by maintaining pressure on the state to continue and finish the job it has begun.

(I'm also interested in the line you draw between public and private childcare - the implication being that people can simply go private if a public creche isn't available. That's counter to (completely anecdotal) stories I've heard from friends within the TMD, who say that private facilities are also completely oversubscribed. I assume that this is a regulated industry, so some figures for the private side must also exist, but I haven't seen any cited in media coverage as yet.)

MTC said...

jjrs -

1) As regards the 20,000 number I assume you are referring to the Tokyo Shimbun numbers. I am still parsing them. They seem to be indicating a localized shift in expectations. Tabuchi assures me that the numbers are not inflated by parents cheating and applying outside their own residential area.

2) the Asahi article talks about the results of survey. As such they represent hopes, not actual applications.

3) Tabuchi is one of the best journalists in town. She does her homework and stays within the lines -- most of the time. She is certainly the best to hold the fort at the NYT in recent memory.

Hikosaemon said...

While I appreciate your analysis of the issue, Tabuchi's description of the issue, flawed as it may be, is consistent with my own understanding and personal experience as a TMD resident, and following the issue when it was a long time top running news issue back in 2009 just prior to the DPJ coming in.

Just from memory, one of the anecdotes going round highlighting depth of the issue within Shutoken was the mass migration that occurred of residents from Yokohama with the longest daycare waiting list, to Chiyoda Ward, with the shortest list, which apparently caused such administrative chaos that they tightened the rules to prevent parents being able to "forum shop" local governments to chase daycare - I think this is what she was probably referring to in terms of it causing moves, and indeed, it triggered a local government policy response.

The issue is an enormous challenge for policy makers, and is an issue that has not been ignored by any means, but I think you are being too contrary suggesting that results to date have been cause for any kind of praise. The waiting lists remain - for public certified and private non-certified daycare, and it causes enormous economic and personal disruption to the thousands of families put in limbo by this issue.

I'd cite it as one of the major areas of failure by the DPJ, guilty in this case as in many others, of promising more than they could deliver. Remember, this was one of the major issues getting attention before the DPJ got in, and areas of hope with their election. Putting Fukushima of the SDP in charge also seemed like it would lead to action given her strong feminist credentials. However, when it became clear that simply "certifying" places that weren't up to fire safety and other codes required of daycare as the original simple plan was wouldn't work, the issue seemed to move slowly toward the "too hard basket". Fukushima spent less time talking about daycare on TV, and spent more time in Okinawa attacking US bases and attacking Hatoyama.

Yes, this is probably a Tokyo-centric issue, and I enjoy the added insight your analysis provides to the issue. However, I don't think it is fair to go so far as to say that Tabuchi's coverage is "nonsense" - whatever shortcomings it has, I think it is consistent at least with the public and news media of the view within Japan by Japanese, which in itself is such a rare thing in foreign media coverage of Japan that I think she still deserves credit for the job she does.

Maybe my view on Tabuchi's reporting is a bit like your take on the government response to daycare shortages - not perfect, but as good as can be expected and still worthy of some recognition. And perhaps we both just have to mutually disagree in this case.

Love your blog as always.


Unknown said...

MTC - fascinating that you're buying the bureaucracy's pitch, hook, line and sinker. The buildout of day care "should be a source of national and local pride"? If we are living in Showa Japan with the folk from "Always Sanchome no Yuhi", that nostalgic and yet fabricated version of Tokyo, then yes, the bureaucracy continues to satisfy the needs of a fictional society. However, in 21st century Japan, with a .

Now, it is no surprise that the bureaucracy pats themselves on the shoulder for a job well done. Shame on you, sir, for falling for that ploy.
Clearly (and certainly by reading previous comments), anecdotal data points and the government statistics are not aligned here. Anecdotes (Tokyo-centric, but hey, Tokyo represents the country in regards to demographic power and societal value shifts) abound of not getting children into day care, or applying for multiple day cares, or simply giving up. As for the statistics, the 25,000 child number is coming from "待機児童数" - "children-in-waiting". This term appears to exclude a number of children who an intelligent person would want to include. It most definitely excludes children who have given up on public day care, which is not a nominal number. The statistics also probably exclude children whose applications are incomplete or "have not been accepted." It appears children are also exempted if there is space at a day-care center somewhere but not the specific one applied for (are they referring to the 30-minute rule, where a child living in Minato-ku may be expected to commute to day-care in Saitama or Hachioji?).
The definition also appears to differ by geography - Shimane states that children who are in "day-care" but not their first choice are excluded.
There are a smattering of articles in Japanese on this issue - rest assured, it is not only the Tokyo populace that is concerned.

The reality is probably closer to somewhere in between what the anecdotes and statistics read. Regardless, society continues to change and as much as the bureaucracy may hope children are brought up by stay-at-home mothers, they are not meeting their stated goal, which is "0 children-in-waiting". We are clearly not at 0, so no one, political critics included, should be applauding the bureaucracy. Furthermore, the government's day-care building scheme rests on certain assumptions of working mother percentages, etc. which may be built on leaky foundations.

Lastly, Tabuchi does an absolutely stellar job at bringing the Japanese issues of the day to light and in a global setting in an intelligent manner.

Anonymous said...

I should know better than to skim one of your posts (which are usually excellent( and not have time to read others' comments, but, here's my two yen's worth:
"Most likely we are seeing a strong correlation of childbearing not with population, work or wealth but with marriage and fertility"
Not sure what your point is here:
There is always a correlation between childbearing and population (although the strength of the correlation varies).
Work and income/wealth influence age at marriage (and hence age at birth of children, in a marriage imperative society) . These are not alternative hypotheses, but influence age at marriage.

A related point: I remember seeing an almost linear relationship a few years ago between the number of state childcare places and proportions of women with children under 5 who worked outside the home cross nationally.

Anonymous said...

I also have a hard time seeing this as a stellar performance although I do believe that some credit is due, both on day care for children and eldercare. However, I also see both as being far behind the curve. The demographics were worked out pretty accurately decades ago and yet there are still shortages, in one of the richest countries in the world.

MTC said...

Mr. Donahue -

I am not sure which bureaucrats are patting themselves on the back, as you insist they are doing. If they are, they are doing so in private. In public, they are releasing scare studies ( hyping a gigantic unmet need...and it would be smart for them to do so, as the bureaucrat who does not scream "crisis" at budget compilation time is the one who is not going to get a bigger slice of the budget pie next year.

Agreed that the government statistics are not perfect as to coverage but they at least measure something. If there were alternative measures, I would gladly consult them.

As to the general excellence of Tabuchi's work, we are in agreement.

MTC said...


The issue here is two-fold. As the Tokyo graph shows, women in their thirties are having children at pretty much the same rate as they have had over the last 35 years...and women in their 40s are having many more. If the fears about careers were truly significant suppressors of the birthrate per woman, we should have seen dips in these numbers, not stability or growth.

By contrast, the number of children being born to women in their 20s has fallen like a stone through water.

What do we know has shifted during the timespan indicated? Median age at the time of first marriage.

As to the issue of demographics, the raw numbers were worked out years ago. Where the government has tripped up is in its calculations of the "woodwork effect" (I am indebted to John Campbell for this term) where increases in availability lead to increases the number of applications, irrespective of demographics.

A look at the 2009 government report on childcare ( shows a slowdown in the opening of new centers in the period 2007-09, likely in response to dramatic shrinkage of waiting care lists in the period 2005-2008, the number of children on waiting lists reaching a multi-decade low of 19,550 in 2008 -- the year of the Lehman Shock.

Since 2009 the number of children on waiting lists has remained above 23,000, despite a resumption in the growth of the number of centers in line with the growth rate in the 2002-2005 period.

Whether the size of the current gap between applications and spaces available is, as Tabuchi's article claims, a result of a need to stay in the workforce because of economic conditions, or is due to the government having fallen behind trend in 2005-2008 -- this I cannot say.