Advice on having a baby in Japan, Baby nursery, Childcare, Day Care, Hoikuen

Tips for applying for Hoikuen (Nursery School) for your baby in Japan

We recently went through the process of applying for Hoikuen for our baby through our local ward office, so I thought I would share our experience and tips that we learned.

Please be aware there is ALOT of information about nurseries in Japan and the application process, so it was not possible for me to include everything here in this post, but I hope the tips below will help!

Video of when we submitted our Hoikuen application at the ward office (just a simple video – hopefully will give an idea of what it’s like when you submit your forms:))

Video of “Hoikuen Kengaku” – Guided Tour of Nurseries in order to select our Top 5 before submitting our Hoikuen application to the ward office

IMPORTANT: The notes below are based on our experience in Setagaya Ward only. Each ward has different guidelines and different deadlines for the applications, so make sure you check with your own ward office well in advance if you are planning to apply for Hoikuen.

There are 2 types of nurseries:

1. Authorised nurseries:

  • Authorised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (called “Ninka Hoikuen” in Japanese, or just “Hoikuen” for short)
  • Apply at your local ward office (kuyakusho)
  • Click here for example guidebook in English explaining the authorised nurseries in Setagaya Ward

2. Unauthorised nurseries:

  • Includes Nursery rooms (Hoiku-shitsu), Nursery Mummies (Hoiku-mama), and Certified Day Care Centers (Ninsho-Hoikusho)
  • Apply directly to the nursery
  • Click here for example guidebook in English explaining the unauthorised nurseries in Setagaya Ward
We applied for the first one – Hoikuen – at our local Setagaya ward office. Our baby was born in November, so we applied for the 0 year old class (under 1 years) in September, which was in the middle of the school year. We had heard it is very difficult to get into Hoikuen, so our plan was to apply for the Ninka (authorised) Hoikuen first, and if this was unsuccessful we would extend my childcare leave for another 6 months, so that we can apply again in April next year.
Hints for applying for Hoikuen:

1. Ask Questions at your Ward Office – Go to the Hoikuen desk at your local ward or city office and ask about how to apply for Hoikuen. There is a Guidebook that explains the whole application process and the requirements for applying for Hoikuen – this is usually available in English as well as Japanese. Click here to see the Application Guidebook in English for Setagaya Ward. The staff at the Hoikuen desk usually can only speak Japanese, but if the Guidebook is available in English you can compare with the Japanese version and generally understand what is being said. Alternatively, you can take a friend with you to translate (probably a good idea to make sure you don’t miss any important details). Note that the Hoikuen Admission Guidebook is different for each ward, and is updated every year (for Setagaya ward, the booklet is updated every year on 1st Sep). Make sure you receive the Guidebook specific for the area where you live and the most up-to-date version (sometimes the English translation of the booklet takes time to publish, so make sure you cross-check with the latest Japanese version).

2. Apply early – It is very difficult to enter government-authorised Hoikuens (Ninka Hoikuen), or any nursery for that matter, due to a severe over-demand/under-supply situation. Based on what I have learned and friend’s experience, it is almost impossible to enter Hoikuen unless both parents are working full-time. Parents have the highest chance of getting their child in if they apply before the child turns 1 year old, and if they apply for entry on 1st April, which is the beginning of the school year. If you apply mid-year, or if your child is over 1 year old, it gets more and more difficult to enter Hoikuen – this is because space is limited and parents generally keep their children in the same Hoikuen year after year until they go to school, so the only chance of your child has of getting in is if another child leaves and that space opens up.

3. Be Aware of Application Deadline – For Setagaya ward, the deadline for applying for Hoikuen is the 10th of the month. Again this will vary depending on the ward that you live in. Make sure you have all your documents ready on time and highly recommend going to have the documentation double-checked by the Hoikuen desk at your ward office, to ensure everything is correct. It would be a shame to miss out because of a missing document!

4. Check Application Validity – In Setagaya-ku, the Hoikuen application is valid for 6 months from the date of application. So if the application is made in September, for example, it will remain valid for 6 months until March of the following year. This means that you don’t have to worry about going through the whole application process every month – your child will automatically go into the draw for entry into your nominated Hoikuen every month for a 6-month period. After this period, if your child still hasn’t gotten into Hoikuen, you will need to make a fresh application.

6. Check Forms Required – Various documents are required for the application. You will need to fill out the actual application form (which includes information about the mother’s and father’s employment status, and your baby’s health for example weight, height, any allergies etc). You will also be required to submit a certificate of employment – one each for both parents – which you need to ask your companies to fill in and sign (if you are on childcare leave, you still need your company to fill in this form). If both parents are working and your baby is already in a private nursery or you have a babysitter, there is a separate document to fill in – this will increase your chance of getting into Hoikuen. There are other forms also available depending on everyone’s individual situation, so make sure you understand all the documentation that is required. For example, we had moved recently to Setagaya ward, so we needed to submit a copy of our tax payments for this current fiscal year.

7. Visit Nurseries – Contact Hoikuens to inspect facilities (called “Kengaku” in Japanese):

  • You will need to select which Hoikuens you are interested in (based on location, number of children, facilities, number of spaces available, etc) and then contact them by phone to arrange a ‘Kengaku’ (inspection of facilities). To select the Hoikuens that you want to see, use the map of all the nurseries that is in the application guidebook and select ones close to your home (or some people choose Hoikuens located on the way to work). The staff at the Hoikuen desk in your ward office will also be able to provide you with advice to help you make your selection.
  • When you call the Hoikuen, you will need to speak in Japanese, so if you can’t speak the language ask a friend to help you. In order to make an appointment they will ask you for your name, your baby’s name, your baby’s age, and your phone number.
  • If the Hoikuen is popular, many parents may want to visit and inspect the facilities. In this case, the Hoikuen will usually arrange an open day so they can show all the parents as a group. They usually arrange this open day to coincide with an event such as a Birthday party (Tanjobikai) or an open play day, so that the parents can see the event and then afterwards go on a guided tour of the facilities and classes. As many Hoikuens have these special open days only once a month, it is important to call well in advance to make sure you don’t miss out before your deadline for Hoikuen application. For example, we called the Hoikuens in mid-August, and most of them were having an open day at the end of August, so we could go and see them before our application was due in early September. Also consider that some Hoikuens may have an open day on the same day of the month, so you may need to try and arrange an alternative day.
  • Open days, as well as individual inspections, usually start at 10am which is the best play time for babies. I was told that it is usually not possible to visit a Hoikuen after 11am as the babies have an early lunch and then have daytime nap. So be prepared to go early.
  • Some Hoikuens will allow inspections on Saturdays, so both parents can visit the Hoikuen together with their baby. This is a great idea if your partner works during the week and is only available on the weekends. The Hoikuen will not be as busy on a Saturday, but there are often a few babies and children there if their parents work on Saturdays, so you can generally still get a feel for the place and the environment.

Other handy hints for Setagaya Ward (as of Sep 2012):

  • Applications are valid for 6 months. So if apply in the middle of the school year, in Sep for example, don’t have to reapply until April (application valid until 1st April). It is possible to make changes to your application up until 10th December, for example if you want to change your priority list for Hoikuens.
  • Plan ahead – If you are going to apply early, it is recommended to apply in Oct so application will be valid until 1st May. The reason is that there are always babies that get into Hoikuen on 1st April but then the mums may cancel (for example, if decide not to go back to work), so space becomes available. So if your application is valid until May then it makes it easier as less paperwork. If you apply in Sep, your application is only valid until 1st April, so you will need to submit a completely new application form on 1st April if you want to be considered for these spaces that open during April due to cancelations.
  • Deadline for April application is 10th Dec – If you are planning to apply for entry in 1st April, the deadline for application is 10th December. Results of the 1st Lottery are announced by 4th Feb (at the latest). There is also a 2nd Lottery – the deadline for any changes to your application is 12th Feb for this 2nd Lottery.
  • Apply to unauthorised nurseries as well. Hoiku-Mama are stay-at-home mums who look after 2-3 babies. But these are already full too so not really an option. It is recommended to apply for Certified Day Care Centers as well as Hoikuen, which are expensive but more likely to get in and are safe as they are regulated (unlike Hoiku-shitsu or Hoiku-Mama).

What happens if your application is not successful?

  • Due to the high demand for childcare in Japan, there is a chance your baby will not get in. Therefore, it is important to organise a back-up plan by applying for unauthorised nurseries as well. Hoiku-shitsu and Hoiku-mama’s are difficult to get in, so my ward office recommended us to apply for Certified Day Care Centers. Certified Day Care Centers are more expensive, but have the added piece-of-mind of being regulated.

Good luck with your application!

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7 thoughts on “Tips for applying for Hoikuen (Nursery School) for your baby in Japan

  1. Hi there,
    This is very informative for people trying to get into hoikuen. I hope you get a place. Don’t be disheartened, it actually gets easier to get a place as your child gets older because class sizes increase significantly once your child gets beyond toddling. At the hoikuen my kids go to in Koto-ku there are only 9 places for babies – very difficult to get a place due to over-demand. 2 extra places become available for the 1 year old class, then more places (perhaps 7 more places for the 2 year old class etc…Both my kids got places when they were three – there was an even bigger increase in class size. My son is now nencho and there are 27 kids in the class. My daughter is nenchu and there are 24 kids in the class.

    We had to use private daycare for a a couple of years and then I had one in public daycare and one in a private daycare for a year – nightmare in the mornings! But now they have both been together at the same public nursery for nearly two years. Hang in there and keep applying. You will eventually get a place.

    You should check the city hall website once the application deadline expires – I know in Koto-ku they post a breakdown showing which hoikuen are in demand. How many places are available for each class at each hoikuen and how many applications they have received. You can check to see if you need to change your choices on your application to increase your chance of getting a place. Perhaps Setagaya ward does this as well?

    Good luck!

    1. Kate says:

      Thank you Gina! It is great to hear about your experience. I am now visiting the Hoikuens that start from 1 year old classes, so hopefully my baby can have a better chance of getting into one of these next April. I am also applying at the Certified Day Care Centers in my area – I wish I had started doing this earlier! I didn’t realise I had to apply for each Certified Day Care individually (not through the ward office), and the ones I have been to actually have a waiting list rather than the lottery system of the Ninka Hoikuens. So it seems the Certified Day Care Centers are ‘first come first served’ style. There were already 70 people on the waiting list for next April, and it is only November! But the staff at the Certified Day Care said that most of these people were just applying as a back-up in case they don’t get into Hoikuen, so once they get into Hoikuen they will cancel their application for the Certified Day care center and free up some spots. I will keep my fingers crossed:)

  2. Good luck with it all. I went to endless hoikuen to apply and have a look round. Yes, the waiting lists for these private ones are even longer than public daycare waiting lists. I had to use many different daycare before my kids got into public daycare. We are on the home straight now – my son starts school in April and my daughter goes the following year. It was a big relief when they got places and they have been very happy there.

  3. Fifi says:

    Great article! I just wanted to mention though it’s not actually a “lottery” for ninka hoikuens- it’s done on a point assessed basis.

    The higher the points you get, the more likely your chances of entry are. The highest points are given to those who are on welfare and can’t work due to lack of childcare, followed by single mothers or fathers. After that comes the working parents with no nearby relatives, followed by those with relatives nearby. After that come pregnant women with an older child or those who have an older child and are unemployed but caring for elderly relatives. Those whose husbands ( or themselves) who are self employed score the lowest points, along with women who are not working but also want to return to work part or full time ( ie they dont have a job waiting for them already- the woman left work while pregnant and is not on an official maternity leave from a company.)

    Also it should be mentioned that if the kids who are applying for entrance
    have an older sibling at the same hoikuen, they will almost always be given priority.

  4. Ryan says:

    My family are thinking about visiting Japan for 3 months next year for a short career break/long holiday. During this time I was hoping that we could enrol our son, who will be 5.5 at the time, into a day care to expand on his language skills while we at there. This may be for a month or two. Do you know if there are centres that allow for short term enrolments for foreigners?

    1. Kate says:

      Hi Ryan, thank you for your message! It is quite hard to enter daycare in Japan as there is such a huge demand and limited supply. Having said that, you may be able to find a daycare if you contact the international daycares (English-speaking nursery schools) as they may have some part-time space available. (or even for a few hours for 3 days per week, for example). It is best to contact them directly and ask as they will be able to help you based on their availability. Good luck! Best wishes, x Kate

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