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Abe's growth plan for women hits new obstacle

Friday, October 10, 2014 - 16:51
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to help women juggle work and family are hitting a roadblock: opposition to building new daycare centres from residents who fear noise from children playing will spoil their quiet neighbourhoods. - PHOTO: REUTERS

[TOKYO] Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to help women juggle work and family are hitting a roadblock: opposition to building new daycare centres from residents who fear noise from children playing will spoil their quiet neighbourhoods.

The number of Japanese children is falling due to a low birth rate but many pre-schoolers are nonetheless on daycare waiting lists because of a shortage of facilities. Mr Abe has vowed to fix the problem as part of plans to get more women working to offset a shrinking, ageing population and boost economic growth.

Doing so, however, may not be easy given that locals often greet plans for new daycare centres with Japan's version of the phenomenon known as NIMBY - "not in my backyard" - frequently associated with facilities such as military bases or prisons.

Take Setagaya ward in western Tokyo, which has the longest daycare waiting list in Japan, with over 1,000 kids. "We are trapped between parents who are crying out 'we want daycare centres built as soon as possible' and those who say 'we don't need daycare centres in our quiet neighbourhoods," wrote Setagaya Mayor Nobuto Hosaka in a recent blog entitled "Are Children's Voices Noise, or the Sound of Hope?".

Setagaya ward needs to build between 70 and 80 new daycare centres over the next four years to accommodate an estimated 6,500 additional children who will need daycare, said Kota Tanaka, head of a 15-person team set up to speed up the process.

But complaints from noise-allergic residents are an obstacle. "They say children's voices are too loud and are wrecking their quiet neighbourhoods," Mr Tanaka told Reuters.

Some residents elsewhere in Japan have filed suits seeking compensation for "noise pollution" from nearby daycare centres, prompting Mr Hosaka, a former MP, to suggest Japan learn from Germany and change laws to prevent such lawsuits. "The number of children is declining so people think daycare centres have nothing to do with them and see them as something that could cause unpleasantness in their lives," Kansai University Professor Fumiharu Yamagata told NHK public TV.

The noisy children problem could, however, resolve itself if steps to boost the birth rate fail. A government think tanks forecasts just seven per cent of Japan's population will be under age 15 in 2060 in a worst-case scenario that sees the total population shrinking more than a third to below 80 million.

- REUTERS