Caring in the Night-time City

Image: Sieun Lee

Cities continue to bustle even after the sun sets. Restaurants, bars and clubs entertain people through the night, and public transport systems have been stretched into the night and sometimes around the clock to enable a vibrant nightlife. It is not hard to imagine that countless night workers support such nightly activities, and research on night work has brought attention to their urban experiences.

What has been left out of the picture, however, are the children of those who keep cities moving after dark. Where are they and who looks after them? Perhaps babysitters and nannies come to mind at first, and we might assume that children are cared for in their homes until their parents return. This, of course, is true, but my research is about another form of childcare at night — nurseries open at night, or night-time nurseries.

Night-time nurseries are nurseries in Japan that provide childcare services for parents who work at night. Many of the nurseries I visited are open from 7 am to 10 pm, while some nurseries open in the evening and close the next morning. Some nurseries are available for 24-hours upon booking. Children who stay at these nurseries at night often eat dinner, play, and sometimes sleep until their parents pick them up. 

During my six months of fieldwork mainly in Kyoto, Japan, I was able to interview parents and care workers who use and/or work at night-time nurseries. I paid visits to different nurseries in Kyoto and Fukuoka and observed children and care workers having dinner together after 6 pm, reading books, playing with toys, and sometimes sleeping or at least trying to, in a dimly lit room. Their voices faintly filled the offices where I interviewed parents and care workers. A few of the children I met also handed me toys, successfully pulling me into their play. Some nurseries generously gave me a portion of their dinner, which I could smell every time I visited a nursery in the evening, and I was once invited to a dinner made of wooden toy vegetables that children prepared on a small table.

Many parents I met during my fieldwork run restaurants in Kyoto. As they open for dinner services, day-care centres that usually close around 5 to 6 pm are not feasible on their own. Hence, they use night-time nurseries that are open at night, and some parents combine more than one nursery or use babysitting services together with these night-time nurseries. Other parents I have talked to are teachers at cram schools, hairstylists, retail staff, and performers. One nursery provides childcare for many mothers who work as hostesses, who are required to work through the night. 

Despite the diversity in the occupations of these parents, those I interviewed were all mothers. Most of them do not just use the nurseries at night but throughout the day. They wonder what they would have done without these nurseries, many of which are subsidised by Kyoto City. Some mothers mentioned that they might not have been able to continue working since other arrangements are too costly or untrustworthy. It is also important to note that the practice of using childcare was highly gendered. The mothers were often primarily responsible for arranging childcare at night, and it was their jobs and careers that were reconsidered and sacrificed when I asked them what they would have done without the nurseries.

What is often raised in the discussion around night-time childcare services in Japan is the condemning view that parents, especially mothers with young children, should not be working at night away from their children. Night-time nurseries are at times criticised for enabling this. There seemed to be an unspoken assumption that night-time is family time, and children should be home with their families at night. This was producing ambivalent sentiments around working at these night-time nurseries for some care workers. However, they always told me in the end that they believe the children who need care at night should not be left behind, and because with time, they have developed a sympathetic understanding of and the will to advocate for the parents who need to work at night. A few also mentioned that they think family intimacies are fostered through spending quality time together, rather than spending more time together, which they often communicated to the parents to reassure them. 

By focusing on these feelings of guilt and anxiety expressed by parents and care workers, and how they are attended to, reconciled and cared for, I am starting to see how care for children at night is accomplished through webs of caring relationships, the reproduction of the nurseries’ material culture, and their maintenance. 

Upon further analysis of these insights, I aim to develop an understanding of everyday/night childcare practices and relationships, and how they are experienced and felt by parents and care workers. This will contribute to visibilising children and care work that has remained largely invisible in how night-time cities are conceptualised and discussed. Geographers’ engagement with childcare also tends to focus on daytime practices, and this project attempts to extend the enquiry into the night. 

My research does not primarily focus on transport or mobility unlike many of the research at the TSU. However, I have observed and heard that care practised on the move and the journeys planned and made each day/night for childcare, were integral to how participants experience night-time childcare. This exemplifies how care is importantly shaped by the socio-material context of night-time cities and how care practices can (re)produce the city at night. Fieldwork in Kyoto was essential for exploring this process, to critically and intimately engage with the specific cultural codes and political and historical trajectories that shape a city and its sociality, which is inseparable from understanding how care is practised. 

DPhil student Sieun Lee reflects on their six-month fieldwork trip to Kyoto, Japan, which aimed to explore everyday/night childcare practices and relationships as part of their DPhil project, provisionally titled Nocturnal Relations of Care: everyday practices and affect of childcare in night-time Kyoto.