The Maintenance of Drop-in

Play Centers and Issues of Concern

While interviewees commonly reported positive experiences of child rearing as a result of using drop-in play centers, staff members expressed a number of Concerns. Funding and budget were frequently discussed issues. A staff member in her thirties told me that the funding system made it difficult to run a play center: “we have to find half of the money we need, and the municipal government gives us the other half. . . . Annually we only get enough to hire one civil servant [though the nonprofit organization spends the money to operate the drop-in play center without hiring a civil servant]. . . . In order to operate a high-quality play center, we need more money—for example, to hire full-time paid staff members.” To raise their share of the money, some centers run by nonprofit organizations offer temporary drop-off child-care services (ichiji azukari). A staff member at another center told me, “we receive funding from the ward, and we raise money by offering drop-off services. Then we use half of the money for renting this space and the rest on personnel.”

The most common frustration expressed by heads of nonprofit organizations that run drop-in play centers was that the ward, and also the state, which set up the current system, used the nonprofit organizations to cut the public spending on child-rearing support. Their feeling of “being used” by the state cannot be fully understood without considering the status of volunteers and staff at these organizations. Unlike in north america, where volunteering is defined as work without monetary reward, in contemporary Japan, there are “paid volunteers,” who are remunerated at below-market rates, and “pure volunteers,” who are unpaid. Whether a “volunteer” should always be unpaid is not exactly the focus of my discussion, however. Though there were variations, many “volunteers” i met at drop-in play centers (including regular staff) received some monetary reward, and thus the nonprofit sector often served as a source of irregular “jobs” for them.1 several times during my fieldwork, i overheard paid volunteers and staff members refer to a volunteer's involvement in a drop-in center as work (oshigoto). In the context of drop-in play centers, the line between work and volunteering is thus blurred, and “work” at such centers in many ways resembles that regularly available to them in the private sector. Part-time, low-wage jobs without benefits are most commonly available to married women with children, who mainly see themselves as homemakers and would like to make use of their time when their children are in school. Because some drop-in centers are managed directly by a municipality and staffed by full-time civil servants, a staff member hinted that she was not remunerated for her work properly even though she was doing more or less the same job as a civil servant, who is known to enjoy job security and generous benefits. Her sense of frustration, however, was not only about her personal situation but was also about a larger structural issue. She stated, “it is A problem that the ward makes volunteers do what it should take care of and gets the job done by spending little money.”

Others expressed the sense of unfairness they felt toward a ward's practices by comparing the centers run by nonprofit organizations with those directly managed by the ward. A staff member in her sixties pointed out, “we have to keep our drop-in center open on a holiday. It's a bit strange, as a center run by the ward is closed on holidays. Even though we keep our place open on holidays, we do not get compensated for it.”

The official method of evaluation of drop-in center activities was also an issue. A staff member told me, “the ward only looks at the number of the center's visitors. But what about the quality of support? The question is, which is better, to effectively support ten parents who are experiencing child-rearing anxiety or to hold a special event—for example, a rice-pounding ceremony for the new year—to attract one hundred people per day? If we have a special event, we can attract many people, but i wonder if that's real support.”

Finally, the quality and stability of support provided by their drop-in centers were important issues among staff members. Given that nonprofit organizations running drop-in centers mainly depend upon volunteers who receive little monetary reward for their work, it is not always easy to maintain a sufficient number of dedicated volunteers. Initially they may be eager and excited to engage in the activities of drop-in centers, but their compensation may be so insufficient (definitely below the market rates) that they may rapidly feel burned out. As most of the staff and volunteers are married women with children, they may also stop volunteering as their children grow older and their lifestyles change over time.2 a staff member in her late forties told me, “the problem is that we have not attracted a new generation of staff members to take over what i have been doing.” A staff member at another center said, “People come and go. It is a problem that we have not been able to expand the pool of staff and volunteers.”

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