When should you apply for daycare?

In general in Tokyo, demand far outstrips supply for daycare and it is easier to aim to have your child attend a good public daycare from the first April after birth. For example at the daycare my youngest daughter goes to, there are nine spots for kids less than 1 year old and only 10 spots for 1 year old kids (ie most of the time, the first nine accepted will stay at that daycare, and there is only 1 spot for a new kid that second year). Each year 1or 2 more kids are taken until there are about 14 spots for the 5 years olds. The number may vary with each daycare but generally the process is the same.

Many women in Tokyo see it as a rather large career risk to not go back from the first April after birth as every year there are families that just don’t get a place, either in public (whether that be ninka (govt approved) or ninsho (Tokyo metropolitan govt approved) or private daycare… so they go back to work even if they don’t feel ready for it. At least in my area, the ninka daycares are definitely nicer and tend to have yards for the kids to play in. Many private and ninsho daycare don’t have yards but they try to compensate for this by taking regular
walks to parks (how often etc will depend on the daycare).

Do your homework early

I would suggest a visit to your local ward office early (even being a few months pregnant is not too early) to see what daycares are in your area and to ask them what the “bairitsu” is in your area, ie how many applications for each place. They may also advise you a bit on what private daycare options you have and there is a growing push for turning a lot of kindergartens into combined kindergarten/daycare centres so that may be an option. Then go check out the daycares, work out which ones you would feel comfortable having your child attend and try to have about 3 options at hand as many people do not get into their kids into their first daycare of choice.

Please bear in mind that competition is quite tough and it is well worth your time to do your homework. Nearly every working mum I know has a “daycare story”. I have known couples that have moved to less populated kus like Chuo-ku just so they could be guaranteed good daycare, some who have considered a “paper divorce” so that they would shoot to the top of the list (single mothers!) — one friend ended up dramatically shouting at the daycare dept in her local ward office that she would get a divorce if her kid didn’t get in (her kid got in). Though, admittedly I don’t know of anyone who has actually gotten a divorce for this reason! Someone else I knew wrote a letter every week to her daycare dept for months complaining that other mothers worked less before her second kid got in. I have heard of one family that had a babysitter (not sure if they considered daycare or not) and ended up moving to another area completely because their babysitter moved there. Good child care can be a challenge.

That said, I don’t actually know of anyone with a full-time job at a company (as opposed to family business) and a reasonable commute that didn’t get in — though six years have passed since I last applied. A lot of people do get in — just not to their first choice and it may mean an inconvenient trip to a daycare that is not on your commute. I have known several families with kids in different daycares which can mean a lot of work in the morning and the evening — though this often lasts only a year or two as the younger kid will be first in line for a transfer to the older kid’s daycare once a spot becomes available.

If you are not working full time, or you freelance or you are studying — don’t give up hope. I have known mothers who work part-time/were students for a bit etc but still got their kids into daycare — maybe not to the most conveniently located daycare and perhaps not in the first or second year of applying, but often a place opens up. Also if your kid has a disability and you are exhausted from the extra care your kid needs, this is sufficient reason to make an application. A friend’s daughter who is mostly wheelchair-bound attended a local daycare from the age of 4 and the ku assigned an extra helper to that daycare to attend to the child’s needs.
The Point system

Most ward offices have an (unpublicised) point system. If you read Japanese, an example can be found here http://www.geocities.jp/edoworkmom/senko.html

Things to bear in mind

— single parents generally shoot to the top of the list
— you get less points if you are not working full time or if you work from home
— you will get a few more points if a sibling already attends daycare
— you will get more points if you have 3 kids of preschool age
— you lose some points if family (grandma, grandpa etc ) live with you or closeby (though usually there is cut-off age, for example if the grandparents are 60 or 65 you would not lose those points)
— but if you are caring for frail elderly family members that live with you or closeby in addtion to working that will increase your points
— you may not get some points if you don’t have much of a commute
— you can get often more points if you are already working and your kid is in some temporary daycare arrangement (say at a daycare that
only looks after babies)
— don’t ever write on the application form that you will be working reduced hours for a period of time (a friend did and her second child didn’t get in for a year) or want to go part-time. If you plan to do that, work it out with HR so that sort of stuff is negotiated after you get a place.
— I think but am not sure that families where the wife is the main breadwinner tend to have an advantage
— I think but am not sure that people who work shifts tend to have an advantage
— I think but am not sure that families where the husband/wife are doctors or do work like care for the elderly have an advantage.
— I think but am not sure that if you work for a family business, you may be at a disadvantage as then you are not perceived as being at
immediate risk of losing your job.

If you are keen to spend more time with your child than the first April after birth then I recommend you also explore private daycare and kindergarten/daycare options and to go back to work a few months before the next April — which often increases chances of getting into a good public daycare though admittedly it is no guarantee. Also put your kid on a waiting list for public daycare as soon as you feel comfortable about returning to work — you never know, somebody might move house and a spot opens up.

This may all sound quite daunting and it is a little bit but the thing is to do your homework, think a little about a plan B if you don’t get into the daycare of your choice and not too worry too much. I also will say that once you are in, the quality of care at public daycare is generally excellent.