10 Day Care Options in Japan

Daycare options in Japan are more than just nursery and kindergarten, and the number of options and how to apply can be overwhelming. A new parent in Japan, or thinking of starting a family here soon? Here’s our full overview guide to what’s what and how to get in.

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General Points for Application

The school year starts in April in Japan, and daycare and pre-schools of all types usually run on this timetable too. That means applications for nurseries in Japan are usually open in October or November until February for entry the following April, although you won’t hear the outcome until late February or March. Outside of this time, you’ll probably be on a waiting list, as most places especially in Tokyo are oversubscribed. Your first place to find the most comprehensive list of daycares, public and private, in your city or ward should be the local government office or website. It’s worth the time to go to your local government office and enquire about the situation, they’ll have lots of information on all the options in your area, and interpreters if you need them.

When you apply for a government-approved nursery or kindergarten you’ll usually be assigned the one nearest your home. Daycare centers near train stations are always the most popular choice.  In your application, you’ll be asked how far away your workplace is and that helps to determine who gets a place at the most popular centers.

Daycare options and class sizes do vary from city to city and between prefectures so it’s a good idea to check what the situation is in your area. You can often visit any type of center for a tour, on a flexible basis, this usually happens in the summer or early autumn before the October application. You can contact the center directly to arrange a tour.

Here’s a general guide to what is available.

1. Nursery (hoikuen)

The main difference between nurseries and kindergarten is that nurseries are run by the department of health, labor and welfare, and kindergartens by the education department. This explains the big differences between them. Nurseries are open longer hours, typically until 7 pm, provide care for children from 6 weeks old until school age and have a more developmental curriculum, helping children develop skills like dressing, eating, and gross and fine motor skills.

Applications are based on a points system with points awarded for full-time work or looking for full-time work, no family in the area, other children already attending school or nursery, full-time study, and long-term sickness. Some nurseries are open during the weekend and late at night and that will be taken into account on your application. 

The overall aim of a nursery is to provide childcare and support for families which gives a less academic focus than you might find at kindergarten. Lunch is provided at the nursery, and children take a nap after lunch. Classes are grouped by age. Classes for under 1-year-olds maybe as small as 10 children, but for 3-year-olds and over they class size may be up to 35. Nursery is fee-free from 3 years old, but equipment, such as futon covers, notebooks and crayons, has to be bought.

Check out: Top Friendly-baby Ryokans in Japan

2. Kindergartens (Youchien) 

As an education service kindergartens have a slightly different setup. The government requirement is 4 hours a day, but often kindergartens operate 9 am-2 pm. Some kindergartens may have an associated after-care school in the same building or nearby, but this varies from place to place. 

Children can enter kindergarten from April when they are 3. To apply in November or April you can pick up application forms from your nearest kindergarten, your local government office or your website. Usually, every application is accepted with a lottery for the most popular centers. More parental involvement than at nursery is normal, this might be organizing bizarre or fetes, making cakes or bags, or taking part in events.

The curriculum is play-based learning so children will spend time inside and outside, playing individually, independently and in groups with teacher-led activities. Class size may be up to 35. Lunch is not usually provided so children take a packed lunch, and there is no nap time. There’s no uniform but children have a hat, smock and bag. Approved kindergarten is fee-free, but equipment such as hats, books, crayons, etc has to be purchased.

3. Kodomo-en or combined type

Kodomo-en (literally children’s garden) is another type of daycare you might find which is a combined type of kindergarten and nursery – using a kindergarten curriculum during the main part of the day, but with extended hours providing nursery-type of care. 

Kodomo-en can accept children from 6 weeks old until school-age, 6 years old. Opening hours vary widely from 4-11 hours a day, so check with your local government office. Lunch is provided, and other equipment, such as crayons or drawing paper needs to be bought.

4. Private daycare

There are also a lot of private daycares out there, known as mu-ninka hoikuen or non-approved daycare. But don’t panic as non-approved doesn’t mean not inspected and your local government can tell you which they have inspected and which have not. Being non-approved gives the daycare more flexibility to follow other methods rather than the government’s curriculum, so you might find Montessori-style schools in this category for example. 

Private daycare will mean higher fees, plus buying equipment, and lunch will depend on the place. Some centers have a uniform, while others have a hat and smock.  A big benefit of private daycare is you can decide on the center you like, and how many days and hours your child attends, whereas the approved places tend to be 5 days a week, for set hours. Classes are often smaller. Start dates can be flexible too, not necessarily in April.

Private daycare often provides ‘after-school’ services for kindergarten children, and sometimes elementary school-age children too. Some centers have a school bus that has a set pick up and drop-off route. 

Check out: 25 Baby Names That Work for Both Japanese and English

5. International daycare

As a type of private daycare International daycares or preschools are free to follow the curriculum of their choice and include significant time with a second language. The majority of international schools are English/Japanese medium, but there are also French, Chinese-medium and other languages, bilingual or even trilingual activities available. Staff may be bilingual or speak solely in one language, so it can be easier if your Japanese is not a high level to deal with the teacher and paperwork of an international school.

Tokyo Association of International Schools has a good directory of schools in Kanto https://www.tokyopreschools.org/directory

6. Hoiku mama

Hoiku mama are small daycares usually in a home, or home-like environment. It’s only for children aged 0-2. There are a maximum of 3 children per staff member, so usually can only accept 3 or 6 children. These are popular and difficult to get into! The actual size of the daycare might be surprisingly small, the required size is a minimum of 6 tatami mats, that’s about 9 meters square, or 98-foot square. This means that the children do get more outside time than kids at bigger nurseries. You will need to provide milk for babies, and lunch will depend on the center. Application is through your local government.

7. Ichiji hoiku

Literally hourly daycare. This is a temporary daycare option provided by local governments and private companies. Depending on your city or ward, they can be booked only on the day or in advance. In some places, ichiji hoiku is so popular there is a 3-hour maximum, or you’re restricted to using it just once a week. You’ll pay by the hour, starting around 500 yen per hour or around 1500 yen per day, and if you’re late to pick up you may be charged a late fee. Advanced registration is essential, and the daycare might ask you to come in for a short orientation before you start. 

It is available for all children from 3 months up to 6 years old, and you can use it for any reason, whether that’s your healthcare appointments, work, family reasons, shopping or entertainment. You will need to provide everything your child needs, including milk for babies, several diapers, a drink and a change of clothes for all age children.

8. Sick kids’ room and overnight care

For children who usually have a place at a daycare or school, but are sick, and parents cannot care for them all day, most cities and wards have a sick kids’ room that they can stay at during the day. This service is available from 1 month to 12 years old, depending on the facility. You need to be registered in advance to use these rooms, so it’s worth considering if you are a key worker, a single parent, often solo parenting or have unreliable work.

You’ll have to complete a medical information form on each occasion before your child is accepted to the sick room. If your child has flu or other respiratory tract infections they may not be accepted depending on the diagnosis and symptoms. A PCR test may be required and at the moment children with Covid-19 will probably not be accepted to the sick kids’ room.

There are also overnight facilities if the parents are hospitalized, ill – physically or mentally, temporarily working away, attending funerals, or for other reasons. These also need to be registered in advance and have a small charge. 

9. Babysitters

Traditionally babysitting is uncommon in Japan, and it’s very unusual to ask your neighborhood teenager to look after your children. Recently more and more agencies are available so it is becoming easier to book a babysitter. A big benefit of using an agency is that you’ll find lots of international sitters, so it’s easy to find a speaker of your home language to help your children feel more at ease. Rates start from around 1500 yen per hour.

Some online agencies include Care Finder, Baby Sitters, Poppins.

10 Jidoukan: Children’s House

These aren’t actually daycare facilities but community centers you can visit with your child/ren. They are run by the local government or private companies, and entry is usually free, or cheap, and no need for pre-registration. All children can use the facilities here from babies to high schoolers. 

They’re a great way to get out of the house and for you and your children to meet new friends and play with new toys. Toys and games are provided for children for example train sets, lego, cards or books. Some larger places have climbing walls or room to play table tennis or dodgeball. Some jidoukan have outdoor space and some are centered on outdoor activities, and provide the chance to try activities like natural swimming, camping or outdoor cooking.

Usually open Monday- Saturday, 9.30 am-5 pm, some might be open Sundays too. Free play is encouraged, and you’re free to enter and leave anytime. Organized activities might include story reading, crafts, cooking or music. Some centers have mothers’ groups and educational lessons for parents. Some jidoukan may have counseling or advice services available too, for both parents and children.

As well as jidoukan do check out traffic parks, they’re fun outside play areas with paths drawn to look like roads. Children learn about road rules and safety and can practice riding various types of bicycles, go-carts, or even unicycles.

As mentioned all facilities will vary by area so get familiar with your local offerings and always ask the local government office if there is something you need. Japan has very good childcare provision and there is often a lot more available than can first appear.

How much is daycare in Japan?

From 2019, childcare is free in Japan for all 3-year-olds and over in public daycares, and private daycares may also receive a subsidy. Under 3 years old the fees are determined by household income and vary by municipality, so tax-exempt households do not have to pay fees, of up to 70,000 yen per year for the highest income.

At what age is daycare available in Japan?

Nursery is available from 56 days old until elementary school age, at 6 years old, and kindergarten is usually for 3 years old until school age.

What is daycare called in Japan?

Hoikuen – nursery is for babies from 56 days old until elementary school age, youchien (kindergarten) is for preschoolers aged 3 to 6 years old.

What’s the difference between hoikuen and youchien in Japan?

Hoikuen (nursery) is run by the department of labor, while youchien (kindergarten) is run by the department of education. Hoikuen is a service for working parents, and has longer opening hours and provides lunch, while youchien is open 4-5 hours a day with no lunch provided.

How do I apply for child care in Japan?

Applications for public-provided daycare open in October or November until February for entry the following April. You should apply through your local government office. If applying for hoikuen you will have to provide proof of work or full-time study, disability or long-term illness and it’s possible to self-certify. 

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