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.
But unlike many American women, young Japanese mothers had few options unless their own parents could help out. Few families feel comfortable with baby-sitting shares in a culture in which inviting strangers into the home is unusual. And with the hurdles to immigration high, foreign-born nannies are a rarity.
They turned instead to the government-subsidized child care centers, where their collective needs led to a nationwide waiting list that is now more than 25,000 places long. The government estimated the waiting lists for all types of day care would be tens of thousands of names longer, but many families have given up.
Increasingly, families try private unsubsidized day care centers, which can be twice as expensive despite sometimes offering lower standards of care. But in Japan's cities, even private centers are oversubscribed.
Some families are so anxious to get into public day care that they upend their lives, moving to districts known to have the shortest waiting lists. Ms. Okumura's "hokatsu" quest followed a familiar path, even if the number of centers she visited was slightly higher than the norm.
First she applied to her local government, which like many uses a point-based rating system to try to ensure everyone has an equal shot at subsidized day care.
She and her husband, Masanori, received a perfect base score of 40 because they both have full-time jobs. Single-parent households earn extra points as do those with special-needs children, but the Okumuras at least lost no points. Having grandparents nearby who could care for Ayane would have been a handicap.
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Still, officials in Shinagawa, the Okumuras' city ward on Tokyo's waterfront, told them their chances were slim.
So began Ms. Okumura's slog through the city's private day care centers, past endless rows of cubicles for tiny shoes (removed at the door), piles of napping futons and gaggles of children.
If she was turned down for public day care, her plan was to return to these nurseries, joining a yearly stampede of anxious mothers who look for private spots to open up once the lucky winners of subsidized slots drop from the competition.
Slowly, she began to harbor a new worry; because private day care centers begin their "school year" in April, coinciding with the announcements of public admissions, she faced a painful choice. Even if her family got lucky enough to be accepted at a nursery, Ms. Okumura would be forced to cut short her legally entitled maternity leave by eight months and leave Ayane in child care when the baby was 4 months old. If Ms. Okumura extended her leave until the following April, she worried it could jeopardize her job at an accounting firm.
She chided herself for not having timed her pregnancy to give birth soon after April to get a high spot on waiting lists — a strategy recommended on chat sites filled with earnest posts on strategies to get into day care.
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Shinzo Abe, the newly appointed prime minister, has promised to create new day care centers, but it is unclear how much he can accomplish given Japan's growing and politically active elderly population. Almost 70 percent of Japan's social welfare spending is directed at people 65 or older, while less than 4 percent supports children and families, according to a government-affiliated research group.
"It's become a vicious cycle," said Hiroki Komazaki, the founder of several nurseries. "We don't invest in future generations, inevitably bringing on an aging society."
Those priorities were apparent at a recent City Council meeting in Tokyo's Setagaya ward, which has one of the country's longest child care waiting lists. Only after a drawn-out discussion on the distribution of adult diapers did talk turn to day care. Then no action was taken, disappointing mothers in the audience.
In the end, an exhausted Ms. Okumura got lucky, recently winning the offer of a coveted public day care spot. But she cannot yet bring herself to accept it. "I wish I could stay with my daughter for longer," she said. "I'm filled with so much worry, and completely spent."
- Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.