Our family is a dual income household, so we always knew that I would be heading back to work. Because of the way that Japanese company promotion and job change cycles work (once a year, in April), it was clear that if I wanted the chance to change teams or be promoted in April 2022, I would have to return to work in July 2021 – when my daughter would be 6 months old.
My husband and I had heard very positive things about the quality of Japanese public Hoikuens, so we went to the ward office when I was about 6 months pregnant to get more information on how to apply. The Setagaya ward office was incredibly helpful – they have a desk for foreigners support and someone who spoke English explain the Hoikuen system and how to file an application. A few things became clear after that conversation:
There are a few different types of daycares:
Ninka – These are the public daycares that you have to apply to through the ward and spots are awarded based on points system/need. Fees are determined based on residence tax (and therefore, household income). Some are government run and operated, others are privately run and operated.
Ninsho – these are private daycares by recognized by the government, so you can get some government subsidies if you are working full time. You apply to each one of these directly and they can take/reject you at their own discretion. The fees depend on how many hours you sign up for (e.g. 8hrs per day), but are about JPY60 - 70k/month
Mu-Ninka – these are private daycares, not recognized by the government. Honestly, I didn’t look in to these as I wanted comfort of some government-recognized standard!
Hoikuens do allow for entrance outside of the April - March school cycle, but it is extremely difficult to get a spot during these times. Your only options will be those that have a vacancy (may not be your top choices) and those may be very limited.
Applications for April start the autumn before. There are some opportunities to apply later (e.g. in February, if your child was born after the autumn deadlines), but spots will be limited. For entrance at other times of the year, you apply the month before you are seeking entrance.
Spots are competitive and allocated based on a points system. Degree of competitiveness varies ward to ward. Points are awarded for things like:
Both parents working – even more if both working full time
If you are always enrolled in a private daycare (shows you really need to send your kid to Hoikuen)
If you have any medical or mental health issues
The price of Ninka Hoikuen is based on residence tax (which is based on household income) – once you reach the higher thresholds, the cost is not very different vs private daycare. (~60 - 70k/month). If you do decide to go to private daycare, your ward may still give you subsidy to help cover the cost (depending on amount of residence tax you pay)
You can apply for Hoikuen that are not in your ward, but you may have lower priority vs ward residents.
The woman at the ward office said that her recommendation was to apply to both private and public daycares, since our chances for gaining entrance to a Ninka in July were slim due to demand for Hoikuen spots in our ward.
I had my heart set on going back to work in July and wanted to avoid the stress of having to change plans last minute due to trouble finding childcare. So, we decided our course of action was to apply for Ninsho ahead of my return to work.
Luckily, Setagaya and Meguro wards have a list of all the Ninsho in the ward. So, I started mapping out the locations and looking at websites of the Ninsho near us. Not so lucky…It was height of COVID (winter 2020/2021), so almost no Ninsho were offering tours.
In late 2020, we managed to find one Ninsho that was allowing tours. Although my husband is relatively proficient in Japanese, we enlisted the help of Japan Healthcare Info to accompany us on a daycare tour and provide translation. The tour seemed to go fine – the Hoikuen and their staff were lovely - and we filled out a form indicating our interest. The woman at Japan Healthcare Info suggested that best to wait until late spring 2021 to apply in earnest. So, we put it to the back of our minds for a few months…
Our daughter was born in late January and the first two months were a blur of caring for a newborn. I had doulas coming a few times a week to provide support and in mid-March one of my doulas asked if I had applied for Hoikuen yet. This took me by surprise, since we had only been planning to send out applications to Ninsho in May and Ninka in June, since by then all the Hoikuens would know if they had any free spots after April entrance. But, my doula seemed worried about this plan and she suggested we reach out to some Ninsho already in March.
In the end, almost all the Ninsho we reached out to were either already full or not accepting tours (due to COVID). The only one that had any slots still open was the one we had visited in late 2020! But, they were only accepting applicants for April entry.
I had never planned to use a daycare from April, but I was growing increasingly concerned over whether I would find a spot for July and after 2 months of caring for a newborn, the idea of some additional childcare support sounded very appealing. So, we applied with the intention to use the daycare 1x a week at the start and build up to 5x a week by July. We would still have to pay full fees, but I figured that additional cost would be recouped quickly vs if I had a delay in returning to work. Luckily, our application was accepted!
There have definitely been some difficult aspects to starting Hoikuen. The language barrier can be incredibly frustrating – we use the renrakucho (daily notebook that both parents and Hoikuen staff write in) for this purpose, but it means a lot of google translate and practicing my Kanji! But, overall the level of care seems incredibly high and I’m grateful I was able to find a spot that suits our needs.