A Guide to Childcare for Babies and Toddlers in Japan

A Guide to Childcare for Babies and Toddlers in Japan

When you have a child in Japan, sooner or later you will need to consider using a childcare service. You might think it is just a matter of applying and sending your child to the nearest facility, but it is surprisingly over-complicated and depends on all sorts of factors that you will need to think about.

The aim of this guide is to try and simplify the process by explaining the types of daycare and childcare facilities available in Japan, giving you an overview of the costs, and making sure you have the information you need beforehand to avoid any undue stress during the entire application process.

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Cultural Background

You have a lot of childcare options in Japan, and there is a specific reason why.

In short, an overwhelming majority of mothers in Japan previously did not work up until about 25-30 years ago; they stayed home and took care of the children while the husband worked.

For the most part, children stayed at home until they were 3 and then were enrolled in a kindergarten.

On top of this, because kindergarten was not mandatory, some kids even stayed home until they were 5 years old and went straight into elementary school.

However, as the cost of living rose over three decades, and the salary of the average Japanese worker stayed relatively stagnant, it became more and more necessary for both parents to work.

Moreover, grandparents looking after children while parents attend work has become less common in recent years.

This is because many people have had to move away from rural areas to find reliable work in larger cities.

As a result, the year-round nursery school childcare system was created (very different than kindergarten with long winter, spring, and summer breaks).

Here is a breakdown of the different kinds of facilities, comparisons, what your child’s average day consists of, and an explanation of some of the things you will be responsible for as a parent.

Hoikuen (Nursery School) from 0-2 Years Old

Hoikuen, or nursery schools, will accept children from as young as a few months old up to five years old. These facilities are more focused on general childcare and have both public and private options.

As I explained, they are primarily designed to support working parents, and you can find them in almost any town in Japan. In areas with a large population of children like cities, they can be extremely competitive to enroll your child into.

Here is an example entrance guide for Noda City in the Chiba Prefecture.

Each city has different rules and different criteria based on the availability of facilities in the area and the population of children, but this is a good base guide of what you need to consider.

Public Hoikuen

For the sake of fairness, hoikuens use a point-based admission system, where a child’s eligibility is determined by a list of criteria.

Hoikuen in Japan
There are many public Hoikuen available in Japan to take care of your children during daytime.

Applicants are given points based on:

  • The employment status of parents
  • The number of hours worked per week by the parents
  • The child’s age
  • Other specific health needs

Families with higher points are given priority in the admission process.

Preferences are given to:

  • Single mothers
  • Those receiving financial assistance benefits from the government

An exception is made for women who:

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  • Just gave birth to a child
  • Are on maternity leave

These women are also given high priority, although this is only for a temporary period of time.

I made a simplified table that breaks down some of the criteria. The max points you can receive are 20, and keep in mind that all regions in Japan have varied versions of how they allocate points.

This table is specific to Tokyo. It will undoubtedly be slightly different for your city depending on regional demographics and family needs.

CategoryCriteriaPoints
EmploymentFull-time company employee20
Self-EmployedSelf-run business owner working 40+ hours/week20
FreelancerWorking 40+ hours/week in an office19
Freelancer Case #2Working 40+ hours/week from home18
Private Day Care EnrollmentAnother child already enrolled in private day care+2
Maternity LeavePregnant, have a child in day care, planning to go back to work+2
Maternity Leave Case #2Re-enrolling older child after taking them out for maternity leave during new pregnancy+4
Family AssistanceGrandparent under age 60 living within 1km-2
Employee of Public Day Care FacilityApplying to have your child in the same day care that you work in-1
Requesting to move from one public day care facility to anotherMultiple children at different public day care facilities and request they be assigned to the same one+2
Disabled ChildChild with a disability+2
Special CircumstancesCase by case basis by the municipality in Prefecture+1 to +6
   

The Cost of Public Hoikuen

Public Hoikuen is far from free, but in comparison to other countries, it is considered reasonable since it includes a lot of services, which I will explain later.

The general cost range is between 30,000 JPY and 70,000 JPY a month. It is reasonable to say that there is no fixed price for 0-2-year-old childcare; it differs for everyone.

If your child is below 3 years old, the cost of childcare is primarily based on two factors:

  • a sliding scale of the main income of the household
  • whether or not you have another young child (0-5 years old) who is enrolled in the same or a different pre-school or kindergarten.

In addition, the fees for public hoikuen are determined by the previous year’s household income; those with a higher family income will pay more, while those with lower incomes will pay less.

Many regions in the countryside with fewer children have different pricing structures and more lenient admission rules.

Your Child’s Day at Daycare

The flow of your child’s day at daycare depends on their age; different activities and programs are offered for different age groups. Normally, it includes a combination of playing, sleeping, and eating.

The classes are structured by name with rather cute names for each group (e.g., dandelions, oranges, squirrels, etc.); these are decided by your child’s birth year and age. Some schools offer integrated groups with a range of ages, but it varies from school to school. This blog offers some tips and useful information that can give you a clearer picture.

The facilities at each nursery/daycare almost always include training toilets for kids, a kitchen where lunches are prepared, an outdoor playground, and separate classrooms with different age-appropriate toys and games in each.

Each child at nursery school will have a set nap time, and all young children will take a nap after lunch (this usually lasts from around 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.).

Children also receive a small snack after they take their nap.

Please note that if your child has a fever, you need to pick him or her up. In case it’s a rash after fever, you need to get a medical certificate at a clinic or a hospital to make sure your child can be with other children at the daycare.

Lunch at a Public Hoikuen

Your child’s lunch at school will either be a freshly prepared school lunch or a combination of bento lunches you must prepare and school lunches on some days of the week.

I want to provide you with a little warning; teachers will criticize your bento lunch if it does not meet their nutrition expectations.

nursery school trip in sapporo
The daycare may also take your kids to an outdoor trip nearby.

They will advise you if they think it is too big, if it has too much meat, if it does not have enough vegetables, and other points that they find unsatisfactory for a child’s nutrition.

This is not a point of argument between you and the teacher; the teacher has the final say on what students eat for lunch at school and is in charge of maintaining their health during school hours.

Your Responsibilities and Life for Your Child at a Public Hoikuen

As a parent who has enrolled their child at a pre-school/nursery, there are a lot of rules to follow, and a surprising amount of parent participation is expected.

Some of these are obvious, but others will depend on the school.

A hoikuen will require you to:

  • provide a backpack each day for your child with a change of clothes (up to 2-3 sets for the youngest age group)
  • clean washcloths, gauze cloths, diapers, bibs, cups, and a thermos

All of these items will need to have your child’s name written on them. Many parents use a small label or sticker maker and attach that to all their child’s items.

Remember, you will even need to write your child’s name on every diaper that you send with them to school. Here is a helpful list of tips that I found useful.

Lastly, you must be prepared to wash all of your child’s uniforms. I say uniforms because you will have designated sportswear, uniforms, hats, handkerchiefs, cloth napkins, carrying bags, socks, and shoes for your child at school.

From 0–2 years old, plain clothes are often acceptable, with a few changes of clothes included for playing outside. However, when your child reaches age 3, set uniforms will be issued from the school.

Some of these pictures should give you an idea of what the uniforms look like.

Some daycares will require you to bring a small futon mattress for your child.

Parent’s Association

On top of this, you need to pay yearly dues to the parents’ association of your school, attend semi-regular meetings (including those with all parents and staff, parents’ association meetings, and one-on-one meetings with your child’s teachers).

It is also highly likely that you might be asked to play a role on one of the committees. This could be as simple as participating in a craft fair or just helping to pass out paperwork at an event.

Hoikuen Operation Hours

The operation hours of each hoikuen are similar; they fit the standard workday (8:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.). So, if you need to have your child looked after for the entire day until your workday is over, this would be your best choice.

Public vs Private Hoikuen

Basically, private hoikuens differ in how they are managed, their rules and policies, and the different education options they offer for your child.

For example, private schools are run by private companies, educational corporations, or non-profit organizations, which means they have a diverse staff (often younger teachers).

Here are the key differences:

  • Staff: While public schools tend to have more veteran nursery teachers, who are government employees, private schools have a more diverse and younger staff.
  • Cost: All nursery school fees for public and private are determined by the municipal standard and based on the household’s income. However, private schools have some additional charges for special classes that they may offer or uniforms. Overall, private schools are considerably more expensive, with some schools ranging from 50,000 JPY to 70,000 JPY a month.
  • Class hours: Private schools are also more flexible with hours, stretching until 7 p.m.
  • Class size: Since public schools are government-funded, they have larger class sizes and sometimes fewer educational resources than a private nursery school.
  • Extra-curriculum activities: You will also find that private nursery schools have activities that public schools don’t offer. This could be something like piano lessons, Montessori teaching methods, or English-involved education. Here is an example of a specialized pre-school in Kobe, Japan.
  • Extra services: Private schools may offer special services for laundry or meals at an extra cost.

Licensed (ninka) vs Unlicensed Facilities (ninka-gai)

In addition to considering whether a public or a private nursery school is good for your child, you will also have to understand how schools are licensed.

When you are applying, this will be an important factor in whether your child is accepted for the upcoming school year. Simply put, unlicensed facilities have more availability and shorter waiting lists than licensed facilities.

nursery school in Hokkaido.
Because of heavy snow, many nursery schools in Hokkaido are located inside a building.

Almost all public nursery schools are licensed, but there are private schools that also have government recognition. Licensed facilities meet all government standards for staff qualifications, have a set facility size, and thorough safety protocols.

They also receive very large government subsidies, which is why they are more affordable for families. Unlicensed facilities do not receive government subsidies, and this is why they must charge higher fees.

Yochien (Kindergarten) – Age 3-5 Years Old

Youchien serves children aged 3 to 5 years old and tends to be more focused on early stage education in addition to basic childcare service.

Most youchien are privately owned, while some are operated by religious groups or international companies; needless to say, there are a spectrum of choices for parents.

Cost of Yochien

The biggest differences between hoikuen and yochien are the cost and the environment. This was not the case for decades; up until 2019, yochien (kindergarten) shared the same costs as hoikuen (pre-k); they were both expensive for parents.

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In 2019, thanks to the “work style reform” bill under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, yochien became essentially free. You only pay a small amount per month, but this is usually to cover your child’s lunch, transportation to school, or school uniform/shoes fees.

Please do not get too excited about it seeming as if it is free though. While the monthly tuition is now regulated by the law for kindergartens, they still find a way to charge as much as they possibly can for “admission fees,” “service fees,” and other numerous charges that add up. Take a look at these charges as an example.

This does not include the mandatory uniform, uniform accessories (hat, bowtie, scarf, etc.), specified bag, lunch bag, and water thermos that you will need to purchase. All must fit the rules of the school.

You will also need to buy multiple pairs of shoes for your child and re-buy them often as your child’s foot grows fast.

Operation Hours of Yochien

Yochien follows a rigid school schedule, and it ends early.

The hours of a yochien operate from the morning into the early afternoon, usually from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm or 3:00 pm. Post-lunch, all children settle down for a nap at noon.

Please note that “naps” are typically only at Hoikuen, not Yochien.

Anything beyond the time it ends for the day, you are responsible for with an additional fee.

This is called the “azukari” (after hours childcare) fee. Here is another sample fee list from a kindergarten, and it includes explanations of some extra fees that are common across the country.

Public and Private Kindergarten

Similar to Hoikuen, there are big differences between public and private schools. Public kindergartens in Japan, known as Kōritsu Yochien, are funded by local governments through tax, and they are a bit more conscious of people’s economic situations.

Admission to public kindergartens prioritizes children who are local (or were born in the area), even though this isn’t exactly a fair way of thinking.

nursery school in Japan
There are both private and public kindergarden available in Japan.

They all have approved curriculum and guidelines that are set by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology office (MEXT). They also may have larger class sizes.

Private kindergartens, or Shiritsu Yochien, are funded through tuition fees paid by families with kids that attend the school; they are more like a business in that sense.

They also tend to have interviews for parents and children who want to attend, require more parental involvement for events and activities, and are much more competitive.

The positive point about them is that they tend to be more progressive, and some even offer bilingual education.

Admission Criteria and Process

I will not lie to you, applying to a hoikuen or a yochien requires patience and the ability to fill in and submit a pile of documents.

The application begins with filling out a detailed form provided by the hoikuen; this gathers information about the child, the family situation, and specific care requirements.

Here’s a list of documents you generally need:

  • Proof of employment. It can be an employment verification letter or an employment contract
  • Recent income statements from all working household members are required to calculate the monthly fee in public hoikuens.
  • A child’s health records, including a health certificate from a pediatrician, are necessary
  • Proof of residency is also required, which could include:

After the application review, families are notified of the outcome.

Some hoikuens may require an interview with the parent and child, but many do not. The hardest part of this process is if you are rejected and have to start from square one in the application process.

To put it in perspective, I was rejected 4 times before my 2-year-old was accepted into a pre-kindergarten. It was a difficult process. Here is another parent’s experience with the application for their child.

Key Dates and Deadlines

The application period for childcare services starts in April and runs from October 4 to November 19 of the previous year. It is important that you submit your full application by November 1st, so that you are not pushed into the next school year.

Some schools offer ongoing enrollment throughout the year, so all hope isn’t lost in case you don’t get all of the application materials together on time.

Meals and Nutrition

Japanese childcare takes nutrition seriously. Lunch menus are carefully made to meet nutritional requirements, and they are balanced meals that include a main dish, side dishes, and soup.

For example, a typical meal might consist of rice, soup, a protein-rich main dish like fish or chicken, and two vegetable side dishes.

They also give the kids healthy snacks that don’t have too much sugar periodically throughout the day.

International Childcare Options

For families seeking an environment where multiple languages are spoken, international childcare facilities are available.

These centers often offer programs in English, French, Chinese, and other languages, catering to diverse linguistic needs. Most international preschools in Japan operate with a bilingual or even trilingual approach, which can be particularly helpful if your Japanese proficiency is limited.

Tips for Choosing the Right Facility

Here are my two tips to help you choose the right childcare.

Visiting and Touring Facilities

Almost all schools offer tours throughout the year. You can begin this process at any time you would like. This allows you to get a firsthand impression of the environment. Some things to be aware of are the cleanliness of the school grounds, the interactions between staff and children, and the facility’s location. Many parents choose to use electric bikes to take their kids to school, rather than cars. Some areas have a lot of traffic, and it is much quicker to use a bike.

Questions to Ask

When touring childcare facilities, it is important to gather as much information as you can about the culture of the school, and about what childcare practices they use.

Here are questions that I usually ask when finding childcare for my child:

  • Staff-to-child ratio: Understand how much individual attention your child might receive.
  • Qualifications and experience of the caregivers or teachers.
  • Emergency policies: How do they manage sudden illnesses and other situations that can arise?

After you have weighed the pros and cons of all the schools you visited, it is time to make your final decision on where you want to send your child.

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After living in Japan for more than a decade, I didn't just learn to speak Japanese; I got to know the culture deeply. My journey in Japan has been full of learning and exploring. It's helped me grow and given me lots of interesting stories to tell. I hope my writing helps others feel a bit of the magic I found in Japan.

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