by Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu - NHK World

The shortage of childcare workers is a pressing social problem in big cities in Japan. There are about two and half million children who go to daycare centers, but at least 23,000 children across the nation cannot go. Because of the hard working conditions and low wages, there aren’t enough people who are willing to work as caregivers.

Now, local governments are counting on more men to come on board. The number of men who are choosing to become childcare providers is increasing.

In fact, there are now three times as many men registered than there were a decade ago.

However, that has sparked debate among some parents.

In January, the city of Chiba announced a new childcare policy. It said both female and male workers would begin providing the same services, including changing girls’ clothes.

The news set off an online debate. Some of the comments about male caregivers were harsh.

The opinions of parents with small children ranged from outright rejection to full support.

“I’m totally fine with the idea of men being childcare workers,” said one mother online.

But others disagreed: “I suppose there’s no harm in male workers when children are very little, but once they grow up a bit I’m not so sure,” commented another.

“I want a female worker to change children’s diapers. That’s my thought based on the various incidents I’ve heard about,” said a third critic of the change.

The fuss is affecting those who actually work at daycare centers. Five of the 15 workers at one private facility in Tokyo are men.

Tatsuo Shinraku works for the school corporation that runs it.

He interviewed the staff to find out what impact the debate was having on the male workers.

Some said they’re worried about how people view them.

“No one has said anything to me directly,” said one. “But I sometimes worry that people think I have inappropriate feelings when changing a child’s diaper and it makes me feel uncomfortable.”

“I know I shouldn’t accuse anyone of fault-finding, but when male caregivers do certain work, it stands out and tends to invite scrutiny,” said another.

The facility has made a point of hiring male workers. And the feedback from parents has been positive.

They like that the male workers can play with the children like their fathers do.

But the operator is worried that if the controversy continues, it might put too much stress on the men.

“From what they have told me, people have certain views of male workers because of their gender,” said Shinraku.

“So I feel the need to handle the matter with great care.”

The debate is causing some to think twice about making childcare a career. University student Yoshiki Takahashi is making the rounds of employers.

He’s earning a degree in childcare. And he’s taking piano lessons to make himself a better candidate for a job.

He also put in some time as a trainee at a childcare facility. It confirmed his belief that working with children would be a rewarding job. Then the controversy over male workers flared up.

Takahashi was shocked by the narrow views he saw posted online. They made it sound like no male childcare worker could really be trusted.

Some of his friends have changed their career paths. Takahashi isn’t sure he can stick to his goal either.

“I’d be lying if I said the debate hasn’t affected my job-hunting,” he said. “Sometimes I feel down about the job. The things that are being said sometimes make me doubt myself.”

Some childcare centers are taking matters into their own hands.

This one has never divided up duties by gender. The men have always helped to change the children’s clothes and diapers.

When its director, Shinsuke Yamamoto, saw the controversy unfold online, he decided he’d better act to reassure the parents.

He wrote up a document explaining exactly what protocols his facility follows.

For example, caregivers have to notify their colleagues before they can be alone with children, and they have to keep the door to the room open.

If a child resists being changed by a caregiver of the opposite sex, someone of the same sex does it instead.

And there are security cameras in every room.

That seems to have allayed some concerns.

“The center has gone out of its way to review the situation,” said one mother. “This certainly helped raise our level of trust.”

“I didn’t realize that the caregivers were so on top of the issue,” said another.

Yamamoto explained why he felt the need for complete transparency:

“People seldom have an opportunity to see what goes on inside a daycare center,” he said.

“Even parents who use the facility rarely see how their children are cared for during the day or what caregivers do. I felt the need to tell them. watch the video.