While this post is titled, An Inside Look At Daycare in Japan, it is based on three factors: my research for an in-depth article on the topic over on Best Living Japan; my experience working in a Japanese kindergarten; and finally, my experiences of having my child enrolled in a (private) Japanese daycare since December 2017.
The need for daycare in Japan is a topic that frequently makes the news. Public daycare, while affordable, is notorious for its waiting lists, and private daycare can be prohibitively expensive.
This post covers the following:
The difference between daycare and kindergartens in Japan
A look at public and private daycare
Typical day at daycare and a look at yearly events
What your child needs for daycare
Alternatives to daycare (kodomo en and gakudo)
An Inside Look At Daycare in Japan
Inspiration for this post comes from my Twitter Takeover of @beingtokyo, when I shared my typical routine of getting the monster ready for daycare.
I’m so fascinated by daycare in Japan! Our daycare (Long Island) now provides diapers but all I used to have to do is write her name on the box I brought in. Do you also have to keep a log of her schedule at home? I’ve heard others in Japan do this.
— Alyson Caraway | BOUND TO YOU out now! 🌙🌹 (@alycaraway) June 22, 2018
I was amazed at the responses to the world of Japanese daycare, so here’s an inside look at daycare in Japan.
Daycare Versus Kindergarten
First of all, let’s define the word “daycare.” You might call it daycare or nursery school, but daycare in Japan is hoikuen (保育園) and is reserved for babies 56 days old up to 6 years old.
This is not to be confused with kindergarten (幼稚園 | youchien), which is exclusively for kids 3 years old until they enter first grade.
Daycare falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, while the Ministry of Education takes care of kindergarten.
Daycare | Hoikuen
To put it very simply, daycare is all about providing a safe and nurturing environment for babies and children while their primary caretaker is at work, hospitalized, etc.
Generally speaking, daycare schedules accommodate the working hours of full-time parents/guardians.
Daycare in Japan is open Monday through Friday (sometimes Saturday), from early morning to late evening. They are typically closed on national holidays and Sundays.
Some daycare facilities open only at night to accommodate parents who work the night shift. Other facilities offer around-the-clock daycare or even offer temporary care (一時保育 | ichiji hoiku).
Because there’s so many options, you’ll definitely have to shop around and explore your choices.
If you are considering returning to work after maternity leave and are aiming for an April start, plan ASAP as applications go out in October. It’s not unusual for parents to even apply as soon at their child is born!
The dates and process vary from municipality to municipality, but it’s best to get a head start.
Kindergarten | Youchien
Kindergarten, on the other hand, focuses on preparing kids for first grade through academics (maths, Japanese), physical education classes, and other activities such as English and music lessons. (These activities are commonly available are private daycares.)
You’ll also immediately notice kindergarten kids by their cute uniforms and school buses whizzing around town in the mornings!
The typical kindergarten day is until 2 or 3 pm, making it difficult for full-time working parents to juggle work and childcare. While some kindergartens do have “after school” services, they tend to fill up quickly and/or be need-based. This is why sending kids to kindergarten isn’t going solve the daycare shortage in Japan. It’s a very very broad generalization, but it’s expected that kids in kindergarten have a stay-at-home mother or a mother who works part-time. Read more about kindergarten in Japan here.
What Do Kids Do At Daycare?
Daycare isn’t just about making sure kids are in a safe environment.
Teachers (保育士 | hoikushi) help kids with the very basics as well as: improving social and motor skills, getting familiar with writing utensils, feeding themselves, how to wash their hands and wipe their noses, how to dress and undress themselves, and how to put on socks and shoes. Even toilet training is done at daycare recently.
Teachers and parents keep in contact with one another via a “communication notebook” (連絡帳 | renrakuchou).
This notebook is so important that I will be writing a separate, in-depth blog post about it.
All kids (even the babies!) have daily outside play, weather permitting. You might see daycare kids around town in their over-sized carts. Babies will be in a carrier strapped to their teacher.
My daughter’s class often went to a neighborhood park, the riverbank, or to a shopping mall near the train station. In the summertime, kids have pool play (水遊び | mizu asobi). Several field trips also take place throughout the school year.
Another part of Japanese daycare (that I really enjoy) is the seasonal activities like Christmas and Halloween parties. There’s also events like potato digging, Setsubun, Hina Matsuri, Tanabata and so on to teach the kids about Japanese culture.
In addition to entrance and graduation ceremonies, there are also seasonal stage performances (お遊戯会 | oyuugikai).
Japanese daycares also conduct monthly height and weight checks along with 2 or 3 health and dental checkups per school year. This is in addition to the scheduled routine check ups for kids in Japan.
How to Get Into Daycare – A Timeline For Going Back To Work
Entering a public Japanese daycare (区立 | ku ritsu or 市立 | shiritsu) daycare recognized by the government (認可 | ninka) is an extremely difficult process.
Please refer to my post on Best Living Japan for details and with your municipal office for paper work and deadlines.
Below is a very, very, very idealized schedule for a new mom planning to return to work in April after giving birth:
October: Attend daycare information sessions/visit daycare facilities
November: Submit applications
December to March: Acceptance letters go out
April: Child goes to daycare
Mid-April: Child adjusts to life at daycare
Late-April: Start working a few days a week
May: Transition to full-time work
What Your Child Needs For Daycare in Japan: A Shopping List
You’ll basically need everything in the photo above:
Individually labeled with your child’s name, of course!
Breastfeeding mamas might be able to send their milk to daycare, but you will have to look around. In my case, my daughter started daycare at 9 months and went 2-3 days a week, from 10 am to 2pm. She absolutely refused to drink formula, so I nursed her before, between, and after class on days we went to daycare together.
Tip: the o-ring needs to be taken out and cleaned daily!
I recommend that you avoid the ones that close with a band or the two tier ones. Instead, choose a bento box with flip tabs, like this one. As with the water bottle, the o-ring on a bento box needs to be removed and cleaned daily! You won’t believe how easily mold grows on it!
Opt for something with a handle to make drinking easier for your child.
This is essentially a placemat to keep your child’s area at the lunch table clean. Cloth ones are better than vinyl/slip resistant ones because they tend to not collect mold as easily. (I’m telling you, I’ve seen a lot of moldy stuff in my years!)
Your child likely won’t need indoor shoes (uebaki) until they’re in the 2 year old daycare class. Note that while uebaki are indoor shoes, kids go outside wearing uebaki when they are doing emergency evacuation drills (because in a real emergency no one’s gonna have time to change their shoes!) Because of this (and regular school life) your child’s indoor shoes will come home at the end of every week for washing.
Choose a pair with a sturdy bottom to keep their feet protected from broken glass and debris in the event of an emergency.
There are two types of uebaki:
Younger kids will have an easier time putting on velcro while children who are more independent will be able to wear their slip-ons with ease.
Uebaki with animated characters are no doubt cute, but the artwork will fade away with repeated washes. Personally, I’ve given up on them and simply choose plain white ones with colorful rubber soles. I customize my daughter’s uebaki with insole stickers and charms:
These customizable charms and elastics attach to the tiny loop on the back of the shoes so your child can wear their shoes without help. They also help your child identify their own shoes!
Basically these are cloth stickers with the words “left” (hidari) and “right”(migi) written in hiragana. Affix the halves to the inside of your child’s shoes, and they’ll be less likely to mix up their left and right! Even if your child can’t read hiragana yet, they can distinguish their left and right by simply looking at the picture..
As for outdoor shoes, invest in a pair of sturdy walking shoes that will hold up during outdoor and indoor play. IFME is one of my favorite brands of kids’ shoes. Asics, New Balance, Puma, and Shunsoku are other brands that hold up very well.
This 5 piece bag set is standard in daycare/kindergarten life and each bag has its own purpose:
1. For the indoor shoes (the rectangle one)
2. For the soup cup/toothbrush (the mini drawstring bag)
3. For the bento box (the medium sized drawstring bag)
4. For spare clothing/PE clothing (the larger drawstring bag)
5. A matching bag large enough to fit the above (the tote bag)
Lunch related items go home daily. Other items like nap time blankets, park caps, and indoor shoes (for kids 2-6 years old) go to school on Monday and return home for cleaning on Friday.
Everything goes to and from school in a big tote bag. The following embedded tweets are from my @beingtokyo takeover.
Next is her lunch tote: bento box, utensils, wet tissues, smock, hand towel, soup cup and water bottle. These go to daycare everyday.
Most kids fill their bottle with barley tea and teachers refill it with water during the day. pic.twitter.com/WQWLMR9JpQ
— Being Tokyo (@beingtokyo) June 17, 2018
And now for my secret weapon – the stamp set! Everything needs to be labeled, even down to each individual diaper.
Three stamp sets (romaji, hiragana, kanji) in several sizes. I expect to be using this throughout elementary school. pic.twitter.com/Uf5BlwJHUH
— Being Tokyo (@beingtokyo) June 17, 2018
In case you missed it, everything needs to be labeled. Even with my class of older kids, I hate having to ask around, “Is this yours?” I can’t imagine what it’s like having a bunch of one year-old kids in my class!
Do yourself a solid and invest in a Japanese/English name stickers and a name stamp kit, replacement ink pad, and ink refill. After all, you’ll be labeling things (right down to pencils and erasers) up until your kids are old enough to do it by themselves.
Comes with 10 stamps of various sizes, your choice of blue, red, or black ink pad, “image” stamp* of your choice, white ink pad, and storage box. (The image stamp is useful for kids who haven’t learned how to recognize their name. Choose a symbol that they will instantly be able to recognize as their own.)
This is a set of 295 colorful name labels. These are so useful for labeling utensils, textbooks, bento boxes, and even things like crayons and pencils! You can also customize these with an “image character” so you child can easily identify his or her belongings.
These iron-on patches are great for labeling large cloth items like blankets, large tote bags, indoor shoes bag, park caps, and so on. This particular item is a set of 3 patches available in different characters and your child’s name can be written in hiragana or romaji.
Another Look At Daycare and Kindergartens in Japan: Kodomo En and Gakudo
Kodomo en (こども園) are facilities where daycare and kindergarten are integrated. (IIRC komodo en is a word they adopted in Chiba Prefecture.) I taught kindergarten at a kodomo en while my daughter attended daycare at the same facility.
Kodomo en are mainly for older kids (3-6), though babies and toddlers do attend. Kodomo en help working parents who want to send their children to kindergarten, but aren’t able to pick them up after 2 pm.
My students (5 year old kindergarten) arrive at school sometime between 7 to 9 am. This morning care is daycare (hoiku).
From 10am to 2 pm, they move to our classroom where I take over, and we have kindergarten lessons. Lunch is at 12 pm and we eat lunch prepared on-site by a licensed nutritionist and cook.
After 2 pm until students go home is called daycare. From 2 pm to 3:30 pm is naptime, and 3:30 pm-4 pm is snack time. Then 4- 4:30 pm is after school lessons/structured playtime (craft, music, Japanese). From 4:30 pm until pick up is playtime.
Another option offered at daycares in Japan is gakudo (学童) formally called gakudo hoiku (学童保育). It’s an after-school program for students who have graduated kindergarten (or live in the area).
Like daycare, the primary purpose of gakudo is to provide a safe environment for children while their primary caretakers are unavailable.
Gakudo kids at my school arrive between 2-3pm by school bus or train if they’re old enough. They have a snack then one hour of subject studies like Japanese, crafting, social studies, mathematics, etc. This is followed up by homework and socializing until parents arrive.