As noted above, in 2009, i conducted participant observation for three and a half months at three drop-in play centers for parents and preschoolers in tokyo. During that time, i had conversations with mothers and staff. I also took part in the centers' activities. These included educational sessions on child rearing involving the mothers and fathers of young children; a lunch café organized by mothers to serve meals to center users; story time; a potluck dinner for center users, an event hosted by a local municipal office to introduce child-rearing support groups; a volunteers' fair for citizens' groups held to promote the centers' activities to local residents; and a program that trains people to supply child-care providers through Family support services (public child-rearing support programs in which local community members provide child care and related services at significantly lower than market rates).

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five staff members regarding their organizations and activities and with twenty mothers of preschoolers regarding their experiences of using drop-in play centers and the availability of support from kin and non-kin. (all the names of the interviewees used in this study are pseudonyms.) The staff members were local women in various age groups; some had adult children and others school-age children. The majority of the mothers interviewed were in their thirties. Seven were working mothers (five of them were on maternity leave), and the rest were full-time homemakers. Most had only one child. Five mothers had two Children, two had three, and one had four. Five of the twenty had a child or children older than three. The majority (thirteen of the twenty) had no ties to child-care institutions such as day-care facilities or kindergarten. All the mothers used drop-in centers regularly and lived close to the center they visited. Usually they walked to or biked to the center.

This study examined mothers of both middle-class and working-class backgrounds, assessments based on their past or current jobs (salesperson, clerical worker, self-employed worker, factory worker, civil servant, yoga instructor, freelance designer, freelance writer, computer systems engineer, flight attendant, and full-time homemaker), as well as their husbands' occupations (construction worker, security guard, restaurant manager, self-employed worker, civil servant, engineer, banker, salaried worker, and medical doctor). I did not recruit an equal number of middle-class and working-class mothers, as the focus of this study was not on social class. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that the drop-in centers examined in this study do not necessarily cater only to middle-class homemakers.

As this study employs a small purposive sample of mothers of young children in tokyo, its results do not represent the typical experiences of young mothers in contemporary Japan. Nonetheless, it provides concrete examples of underexplored new types of child-rearing support—created in response to the demographic and employment changes in contemporary Japan—based on firsthand observation and situated accounts of mothers' child-rearing experiences in their own words. As such, it usefully complements the existing quantitative studies and government surveys on child-rearing support.

The Development of Drop-in Play Centers

The development of drop-in play centers for preschoolers and their parents must be understood in the context of an aging population in postindustrial Japan. During the 1990s declining total fertility rates became a serious issue for the state as it faced a growing number of older persons. The shrinking number of young adults was considered detrimental to the economic and social standing of a future Japan. By formulating national policies such as angel Plan (1995–1999; see roberts 2002), new angel Plan (2000–2004), and most recently the Child and Child-rearing support Plan (2005–2009), the state took measures to provide more diverse child-care services and a better social environment for child rearing in the hope of increasing the nation's dwindling fertility rate. The drop-in play center project (tsudoi no hiroba jigyō), initiated By the Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare in 2002, is one of the specific projects developed by the state in the larger framework of these policies to raise the nation's low birthrates.

Drop-in play centers provide child-rearing support at the community level to families in the area (chiiki katei), and they cater mainly to full-time homemakers and their preschoolers, with a special emphasis upon children up to three years old, who most likely have had no institutional experience. Behind the development of these centers is an understanding that stay-at-home mothers are not necessarily a privileged group that requires no social support, as community networks that used to provide support and child-rearing knowledge to new stay-at-home mothers have deteriorated.

The first drop-in play center was established by the city of Musashino in tokyo in 1992, before the state formulated the series of policies noted above to increase the nation's birthrate (Kashiwagi and Morishita 1997, 55). Among the people who influenced the founding of this facility were psychologists specializing in child development who had observed the activities of drop-in centers in Ontario, Canada. The play center in Musashino city inspired other people and groups, some of whom started their own play centers. For example, in 2000 a women's group in yokohama established a privately operated play center (Okuyama and Ōmameuda 2003, 22), which, among other support groups, is said to have influenced the Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare to initiate the national drop-in play center project.

In 2010, there were 1,965 drop-in centers nationwide. They are currently classified as “chiiki kosodate shien kyoten, hirobagata” (drop-in-center-style bases for community-level child-rearing support) and constitute one kind of facility among several types of children's facilities. Of the 1,965 centers, 592 were directly managed by a city, town, or village; 348 by nonprofit organizations; and 605 by social welfare organizations (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2010). Few centers were operated by corporations. There were 125 centers in tokyo in 2009; among them, approximately two-fifths were open 6–7 days per week; another two-fifths, 5 days per week; and the rest, 3–4 days per week (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2009). These centers must be open at least three days per week for at least five hours per day and have at least two staff members with child-rearing knowledge and experience. No special professional qualifications are required to be a staff member. According to a survey of children's facilities (of which the drop-in centers examined in this study are a part) conducted in 2009 by the national association of Drop-in Centers for Child rearing, annually an average of 6,676 persons (adults and children) visited each center (Kosodate Hiroba Zenkoku renraku Kyōgikai 2009).

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