Ayaka Okumura was barely pregnant when she began fretting over how she would hold on to the management job that would have been out of reach just a generation ago, when Japanese women were often relegated to dead-end "office lady" jobs pouring tea and greeting guests.
From the start, Ms. Okumura had a crucial advantage over the many American women who despair of "having it all." The Japanese government subsidizes thousands of day care centers nationwide for families of all income levels, and it demands that caregivers pass rigorous exams in child care that usually require two years of special schooling.
But the quality of the public day care network - and a growing shortage of slots as more women entered the work force - has created its own set of seemingly intractable problems. Increasingly desperate women are forced into an annual competition for day care slots that is grueling enough to merit its own name, "hokatsu," and is said by some to surpass the notorious, stress-filled job hunt endured by Japanese college students.
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Ms. Okumura is now a weary veteran of that day care campaign. For months, as her stomach grew larger, the mother-to-be, then 30, trudged from day care center to day care center, some public and some private, in what little time she could manage away from her job, putting her name on waiting lists that were sometimes more than 200 names long.
By the time she gave birth to her daughter, Ayane, late last year, she had toured 44 sites in Tokyo — her last scheduled visit was on her due date, but she canceled when she started getting contractions.
"I'm going to lose my mind," she said as she walked one day from a child care center squeezed between two high-rises. "Why does finding day care have to be this difficult?"
In rapidly aging Japan, such hand-wringing is no longer limited to parents. Some government officials have begun to label the shortage of day care spots a crisis that threatens to undermine attempts to re-energize Japan's listless economy by keeping its large pool of young, highly educated women from paychecks that could help increase domestic spending.
More worrisome, experts say, is that a lack of openings — especially at more affordable public nurseries — could convince more women that they should forgo having more than one child or lead them to have no children at all, depressing a birthrate that is already among the lowest in the world.
But with a public debt more than twice the size of its economy and a concentration of public spending on the growing ranks of elderly Japanese, it is unlikely that the problem will be fixed any time soon. A rapid succession of governments in recent years has not helped; in just five years, 13 different ministers have been responsible for dealing with the low birthrate.
At the root of the problem, women's rights advocates say, is that working mothers now face two levels of hurdles: a new demographic trend that works against them and an old bias toward stay-at-home mothers. Like many women interviewed for this article, Ms. Okumura made most of her visits to day care centers alone because in Japan fathers generally consider finding child care to be a mother's responsibility.
"I get asked: Is your work so important that you have to put your baby in child care? Why are you being so self-centered?" said Mariko Saito, who works for a pharmaceuticals company in Tokyo and campaigns for more day care options. "But I'm not working for myself. I'm working to support my family, just like my husband."
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When Japan set up its modern public day care system after World War II, the authorities expected it to serve people who might have nowhere else to turn, like single mothers. For a time, analysts say, that was good enough, especially as well-paid "salarymen" were able to support their families alone.
Then with the bursting of the "bubble economy" in the early 1990s, young men found it harder to secure stable, high-paying work. Wives who stepped into the breach began to push the boundaries of employment, finding jobs they were less willing to part with at the first sign of a baby bump.