The tragic death of a baby who choked on bread in a child care facility in Aichi Prefecture is casting light on why foreign parents feel they have no choice but to rely on unauthorized facilities.
The facility, which was managed by the director who is also a foreign national, operated without meeting the national standards.
Still, the facility had never been without children for nine years since it opened.
The high-profile accident occurred in June 2021.
When the director was preparing for lunch in the kitchen, a 17-month-old baby boy suddenly started coughing in the nursery next door before collapsing forward shortly after.
When the director checked inside his mouth, they found a piece of bread lodged in his throat.
The boy was taken to a hospital, but he was confirmed dead about two hours later.
At the time, the director was using part of their home to take care of seven children from ages 1 to 3, all on their own–even though the national safety standards require such a facility to have multiple staff to care for six children or more.
The operator of an unauthorized facility is required to register with the prefectural government, but the director had failed to do so.
Although the director had provided child care services at the home since 2012, the prefectural government did not know about the facility for nine years, until it received an inquiry from police the day after the accident.
“We still hear about instances in which children are taken care of in private homes and apartments,” said Kiyoe Ito, head director of Torcida, a nonprofit organization based in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, which supports children of foreign nationals.
Members of other support groups in different areas shared similar accounts–that there were many children in one apartment room where there was supposed to be only one child, and that foreigners take care of each other’s children in their communities instead of using official channels.
‘NO OTHER CHOICE’
But foreign families often feel they have no choice but to rely on facilities operating beyond the reach of administrative offices because authorized ones are unsuited to meet their needs.
Michie Kodera, 39, a third-generation Japanese-Brazilian living in Toyota, put her two daughters, aged 2 and 5 at the time, into an unauthorized child care facility 16 years ago.
On one Saturday, she was referred to a job by a temporary staffing agency.
But she was at a loss when she was asked to start working on Monday the following week.
She consulted with the city government, but it would take at least one week to prepare a certificate of employment and other necessary documents to apply for an authorized child care facility. She would also have to wait at least one month before her children could go there.
She was introduced to another authorized nursery at the counter, but it appeared she would be too late to pick up her daughters there after work.
But then an acquaintance told her about a child care service offered at a public housing complex in the city. The facility was run by a Brazilian who takes care of 17 children, from newborns up to school-age children.
She said she could not feel completely at ease because there were times when the director was working alone, but she had no choice.
“Even though you are told to start working from tomorrow, you can’t immediately put your children into a nursery school in Japan,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose my job to someone else, so I had no choice but to leave my children to someone who could take them in.”
It was also difficult for her to take a day off on weekdays to go to the city government once she started working. It took her a full year before she could finally put her children into an authorized facility.
Many families apparently learned about the unregistered facility where the accident occurred by word of mouth, after someone sought advice on social media from foreign nationals about how to find a child care service provider.
The facility frequently received inquiries about availability and was constantly taking in children.
“The reality won’t change unless the system changes,” Kodera said.
Ito said that licensed child care facilities “can’t completely satisfy the needs of foreign workers, many of whom have unstable employment status.”
“There must be other families who have to rely on unauthorized facilities,” Ito added.
A panel tapped by the Aichi prefectural government to investigate the accident recommended a publicity campaign about the mandatory registration and other prevention measures.
However, local government officials are puzzled as to how to uncover unregistered facilities.
And it is not easy, even for a registered one, to meet the standards when it is run by a foreign national who has difficulty communicating in Japanese.
“(Child care facilities) are required to have a given number of certified teachers, but it is difficult to obtain qualifications or hire certified staff,” said an official at the Toyohashi city government in Aichi Prefecture.
But if they continue to fail to satisfy the standards, they will be excluded from the government’s free preschool education program after October 2024, while guardians will lose their eligibility to receive up to 42,000 yen ($310) a month in subsidies.
“Society is responsible for failing to ensure a safe child care environment for children of workers who support Japan’s industries,” said Takuji Yamada, head director of the nonprofit organization Metanoia in Tokyo. “The state and local governments must support them by introducing various measures, including allowing authorized facilities to take in children in a flexible manner and providing subsidies for unregistered facilities to improve their environments.”
Yamada is involved in rights protection activities for children with foreign roots and has operated unauthorized child care facilities for foreign families in Gifu Prefecture and elsewhere himself.
REGISTERED FACILITIES UNDERSTAFFED, TOO
Itsumi Kakefuda, the head of the Center for Child Daycare Safety, which raises awareness about measures to prevent child care accidents, warns that similar accidents could occur even at authorized facilities.
Kakefuda said the facilities are significantly understaffed under the current national standards, making it difficult to properly supervise children.
For example, one nursery teacher must care for six 1-year-olds, the same age as the baby boy who died in the accident.
“When attention is directed at a specific child, it becomes difficult for other children to come into view, resulting in lack of consideration for safety,” Kakefuda said. “The government should have raised the standards a long time ago.”
In 2019, a Niigata Prefecture-based group, which was set up to improve and promote the benefits of registered private nursery schools and “kodomo-en” child care and education centers, conducted a survey covering 16 facilities in the prefecture.
It found that the caregivers spoke less to the children during a meal when there were more children to manage.
According to the survey, when one teacher was taking care of six 1-year-olds, the child who got the most attention was spoken to up to 18.7 times more than the child who got the least.
There was one child who was spoken to only three times in 10 minutes.
But when a teacher was taking care of three children, the child who got the most attention was spoken to up to 4.6 times more than the child who had gotten the least attention, who was spoken to in 35 instances.