Call the sitter: Parents resort to online services out of economic necessity

March 31st, 2014 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Public daycare center closed for the day

Public daycare center closed for the day

A few weeks ago news outlets were all over a story about the death of an infant who had been placed in the care of a young freelance babysitter. The media was quick to blame the mother, at least by implication, since she had found the man through an Internet portal site that matched people who needed babysitters with people who provided such services. Many of these providers seem to be unlicensed, but babysitting as a job description is relatively new to Japan.

What seemed unusual in this case — though it’s actually quite common — is that the two boys the mother left with the man were watched at the man’s apartment in Saitama Prefecture, rather than at the woman’s residence in Yokohama, which is normally the way babysitting works. In the woman’s defense, some media pointed out that she had used the man as a babysitter previously and didn’t trust him, but because he used a different name this time she wasn’t aware she was leaving her children in his care.

However irresponsible the woman was in this situation, the fact is that there is an increasing number of parents who rely on such services. The Internet portal site that the woman used has 10,000 registered users and 6,000 registered sitters. The paucity of daycare services in Japan is a well-covered issue, and some parents can’t wait for the government or the private sector to rectify the situation, especially if they have infants and toddlers, which conventional daycare centers don’t usually accept anyway.

An article in the March 26 Asahi Shimbun describes a 34-year-old Tokyo mother who, like her husband, is a music teacher. Most of their lessons are at night and they have a child who is less than a year old. In addition to not accepting babies most daycare facilities usually are closed after 5 or 6 in the evening. She makes ¥1,500 an hour, and uses freelance babysitters to take care of her baby. She checked all local public facilities and none could help her, so she queried professional babysitting services, but they charged ¥2,000-¥3,000 an hour, which was more than she and her husband could afford.

Then she went to a babysitting portal site and contacted 15 freelance sitters. They met face-to-face, which cost the couple money since the sitters consider interviews work time and also charge for transportation. They checked the sitters’ credentials, if they had any, and narrowed down their list to five. They even asked these candidates to “play” with their baby just to see what that was like.

In the end they decided on three sitters whom they patronize when the need arises. The article mentions another couple who run a beauty salon where the clientele mostly shows up after 5. They have three kids, ranging in age from 2 to 14, and they use babysitters six days a week. Two of the three sitters they regularly use they found on portal sites. They pay ¥800 an hour and tell the reporter that they interviewed all three potential sitters extensively.

There are several reasons for the rise of babysitting in Japan: more parents work at night; in most areas there are no established services that take care of children in emergencies; and the demographic prominence of single-parent households, where the parent typically makes little money. About 80 local governments have set up places called ninka yakan hoikujo (authorized night-time nurseries), but despite the description only five are open 24 hours a day. The rest tend to close at around 10 p.m.

Most parents who patronize babysitters say they need 24-hour facilities that will charge according to the customer’s ability to pay. The lack of alternatives to conventional day care is probably one of the reasons the babysitting business is so loosely regulated, but in any case Asahi says the welfare ministry wants to triple the number of public night-time nursery facilities by March of next year, as well as strengthen the credential system for babysitters. A representative of a childcare business association says this will be difficult unless the government convinces the public at large that these are necessary services.

A survey conducted by the city of Yokohama found that of 31,000 respondents who have left their children with someone else overnight 85 percent counted on relatives or friends and 16 percent used outside services, either authorized facilities or babysitters (multiple answers were allowed). As it is, most facilities still don’t take children less than a year old. Seventeen percent said they have brought their child to work with them. The welfare ministry’s own survey of working parents say 55 percent have never even heard of nighttime facilities.

A more established babysitting service in Japan is so-called baby hotels, which work the same way as pet hotels: You drop your baby off and the staff takes care of him or her for as long as necessary. The welfare minister says that in 2013 there were 1,830 registered baby hotels in Japan, an increase of 121 from 2012. We looked at some web sites, and some are open 24 hours, while some have limited hours, meaning that they don’t take babies for overnight stays. You can pay by the hour (as low as ¥500) or the day, or the month.

The baby hotel business started in the 1970s and used to have a bad reputation, but there has obviously always been a need for such services. Still, it wasn’t until recently, with the greater visibility of working mothers and single parents, that such services came to the awareness of the general public.

A journalist in the magazine Aera who has covered this issue extensively says that the parents who patronize babysitting portal sites and the babysitters who offer their services on them have one thing in common: they both tend to be poorer than average. As one of the parents interviewed for the Asahi article admits, the Yokohama woman whose child died in the care of that babysitter “could have been me.”

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