Living and working in Japan for a few years, you get to have a lot of adventures. Living abroad in general just encourages you to go out and experience life. For example, I never used to travel alone before coming to Japan, but I did plenty of it once I got it here.
It is also full of numerous frustrations as well. Why can’t everyone walk on one side of the sidewalk? Why the heck do ATMs close at night? Why are all banking sites in Japan designed with an utter lack of user interface design? Why is it so easy to send money to Japan with minimal fees, but so expensive and difficult to send it out of Japan?
In the end though, even the frustrations can turn out to be mini adventures and help to keep your mind going. It keeps life interesting for sure. But, what about my greatest adventure? What one thing has given me the most joy and frustration during my time here? One thing – having a kid.
Kids in Japan
Having kids anywhere is a tough job, being a father is just as tough as this job recently that offered no pay, no benefits, no holidays. When I was a know-it-all single guy circa 2000, I was absolutely sure that parenting wasn’t that difficult. But, it really is.
And to add to that, raising kids in a system you didn’t grow up in and are not familiar with can be a bit overwhelming. Also, everything is in Japanese and people are sometimes too shy to help because you’re the first foreigner (usually) they’ve seen fumbling around through the system. Not that people are unfriendly, they just, well, treat you as if you are Japanese in a way, which is good and bad.
It’s a challenge but a joy or all joy and no fun as one person put it. There are good things and bad things about the situation here in Japan. It’s your typical story of old fashion things not working anymore and band aids that don’t cut it along with the eternal battle of young vs. old.
The first good thing, and this should go without saying is that, you get a wonderful bundle of joy. I know that sounds corny in a care bear sort of way, but it’s true.
Just yesterday, my daughter stole my credit card I got in the mail from the table and preceded to microwave it in her toy kitchen set. Then, took it out and fed it to her pet cat finger puppet. You simply can’t get that kind of entertainment anywhere else. And it’s delivered to you every day in the comfort of your home!
But outside of the emotional benefits, Japan helps foot the bill for having kids. It depends on where you live, but they will usually help out by somewhere around ¥15,000 a month for every child you have until they reach a certain age. It is bit controversial at the moment because you can spend that money on literally anything, it doesn’t have to be your child.
We, and most responsible adults, tend to hoard it away for the coming onslaught of high entrance fees and school fees in general. Just going to elementary school can be quite costly, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just work to decrease those costs instead of cutting us a check, but hey I’m not complaining.
Giving birth is also a lot more relaxed. I’ve never given birth in America (or in any other country for that matter), but I’ve heard it is a very get in and get out affair. In Japan, it is quite the opposite. My wife had a private room for a week with some decent amenities – her own sink, electric kettle, etc…
And it didn’t cost us an arm and a leg either. Under normal health insurance and with the private room which was optional, I think it ended up costing a little less than ¥200,000 for everything. The local government helped us out a lot with it though.
After having kids, mothers are expected to be home and stay home. I see a lot of peer pressure about this. Basically, it comes down to the fact that a lot of companies have an unwritten policy of working a lot of (sometimes unpaid) overtime. Of course, this is not a good situation for a mother that needs to be home to pick up kids and take care of them in the evening.
I should say that this peer pressure is not men vs. women, but actually other women have told me that they feel like those people are not pulling their weight at the company so to speak. Of course, I’ve then seen that same woman get married, have kids, and then complain about balancing work and kids, so I guess it comes down to perspective.
Anyway, there is a recent trend of stay-at-home moms and dads across the developed world, so leaving work to take care of your kids for awhile is not the end of the world. The problem though is that there is this magical time limit in Japan. You see at the age of 40, you cease to be hirable. I didn’t know this before coming to Japan, but apparently that’s the age that you stop being able to learn new things no matter who you are. Go figure, you learn something new every day.
Now, there are exceptions to that of course, like freelance work or certain industries that just need well-trained staff, but that is the norm. So if you want to take a few years off to take care of your kids, you need to do that then get back to work before you turn 40. With more and more people having kids later, that starts to be a bit of stumbling block.
If you do choose to both still keep working, there is daycare to think of. You won’t be thinking about daycare for very long because well, it doesn’t really exist, at least in any consistent form. As the New York Times reports, the daycare centers that do exist are heavily fought over. There are baby sitters, but I feel it is not as common a practice as in the States.
There are nursery schools that can take care of your kids starting at around 3 months though. There are two kinds of schools private and public.
Public schools are nice, cheaper but inflexible. Public schools operate on the standard school year, which starts at the beginning of April. What this means is that if you don’t get accepted into the school before April you can’t join the school after that point usually. What’s more is that to qualify for public schools, you have to show that you have a need for it, meaning you need to show that you both have full time jobs or are otherwise preoccupied.
What this means is that you have to have a job before you apply to get in the school. So if you have quit your job (to spend more time with your kid than just the 1 year maternity leave) you will have to get a job while taking care of kids on your own in order to qualify to get into the public school. This includes single mothers.
Private schools are more expensive, but more flexible. Private schools usually allow you to enroll at any time, but are more expensive and usually don’t give you the same bang for your buck. But, what a lot of people do is use a private school long enough to get into a public school.
Another problem that has arisen amongst all this is that children in general have become a lot more valuable. What I mean is that since so many people are having less children and some couples choosing to only have one. They are willing to spend a lot more money on them. So, everything baby related tends to be more expensive, especially if it has to do with education or safety.
Even for cheap things like sippy cups, they seem to cost double what they are in the States. Strollers also seem to be a costly item. We always stock up on things when we visit the States because it can almost be half price for the same brand\model.
Of course, having the child subsidy also doesn’t help the situation.
Japan seems to hover around the 1.3 children born per woman number. 2.1 is what is needed to sustain a population and Japan is already starting to shrink, outpacing past estimates. So, underpopulation is something that should be addressed in the near future.
And it’s pretty obvious to see what kinds of things need to be resolved in order to make that happen. Better nursery school access, more job assistance for women, the list goes on. But, there are some problems getting these services in place.
First, non-parents have a hard time seeing things from a parents perspective. I mean, I sure as heck didn’t have any idea how tough it was. And I think that is something that obviously effects policy and that will effect it more and more as the problem gets worse and their are less and less parents. And less and less people that know new parents.
Second, Japan is currently servicing the world’s largest debt in terms of %GDP in the world. That means no new spending. So, solutions have to cost little to no money or come from cutting something else. In other words, throwing money at it will not solve the problem.
But, something will eventually come to a head whether they want it to or not. The current strategy has been to dramatically increase inflation which is a clever way to put the hurt on the elderly (because they usually live off fixed incomes) without actually coming out and saying it.
Will incomes go up along with inflation? That’s Abe’s (current prime minister of Japan) bet. Let’s see if he’s right.
What’s your experience?
Do you have kids in Japan? Do you have questions about having kids in Japan? I’ll do my best to answer them.