For Itsuo Kandatsu, cooking three meals a day is a task he performs for his wheelchair-using mother and disabled brother. But the 49-year-old Tokyo resident isn’t a house husband.
He used to work for an insurance company. He quit to become a freelance salesman in 2003 so he could take better care of his 81-year-old mother in Arakawa Ward.
“I couldn’t help my mother while working full time at the same time,” he said.
According to a survey by the International Affairs and Communications Ministry, about 144,800 people quit or changed jobs between October 2006 and October 2007. Among them, 25,600 were men, up 1.7 times from 2001. The number of men taking care of their parents or wives is also on the rise.
As Japan’s rapid graying continues, people like Kandatsu who have no option but to leave or change jobs to care for their parents are on the rise, and many are men. The rapid growth of the single population is also driving the trend, since the lack of a spouse makes it difficult to share the burden.
Households traditionally depended on housewives to care for the elderly, but a survey conducted this year by Masatoshi Tsudome of Ritsumeikan University said a third of those involved in taking care of elderly family members are men.
“With more women getting jobs and families getting smaller, some men are taking over this job and the burden of nursing care on families is getting bigger,” said Mao Saito, an associate professor specializing in family studies at Ritsumeikan University.
In addition, the expanding single population is straining this rapidly aging society.
“Singles cannot share tasks. They have to both work and take care of an aged family member. But Japan is not ready” to support such people, said Katsuhiko Fujimori, manager and chief research associate of social policy at Mizuho Information and Research Institute.
The situation is more serious for men because there are now more single men than women.
According to the latest internal affairs ministry census data, in 1990, single men in their 40s made up 9.2 percent of the population and unmarried men in their 50s accounted for 3.6 percent. The corresponding figures for unmarried women were 5.2 percent, and 4.2 percent, respectively.
By 2005, unmarried men in their 40s had more than doubled to 19.6 percent of the population, while unmarried men in their 50s had more than tripled to 11.9 percent. The corresponding figures for unmarried women, however, were 10 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively.
Fujimori argued that it is more difficult to balance a job and family commitments when the burden is nursing care rather than child care, which can be planned for nearly nine months before the child is born.
“It’s different from child-rearing. In most cases, (nursing care) comes all of a sudden. And you never know how long it will continue,” Fujimori said.
The Law for Childcare and Family Care stipulates that employees can take up to 93 days of family-care leave and receive 40 percent of their salary during that time. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, however, only 0.04 percent of the workforce actually took such leave in 2004.
This is partly because many employees fear that revealing the need to fulfill such family responsibilities to their bosses will reduce their chances of promotion, Fujimori said. So they generally take paid leave instead.
Many, however, opt to quit, endangering their financial instability.
“Nursing care can greatly change your life plans,” Saito said. “If workers in their 30s and 40s quit their jobs, it will be a lot harder to make ends meet when they reach 50.”
Saito said losing a job can affect men psychologically because of their tendency to identify with their careers.
“So when they are not earning a living, they feel isolated,” she said. According to one survey, most of the people who kill family members over nursing care problems are jobless men, she said.
A 2008 welfare ministry poll found 40.2 percent of those who abused an elderly parent were men, and 17.3 percent were husbands caring for spouses.
Kandatsu, the former insurance worker taking care of his mother and brother, said he realizes how this can happen. When his father was alive, Kandatsu had to care for the four of them together while holding down a full-time job. It was exhausting, he said.
Men who face tough situations at work also tend to find nursing care hard, Kandatsu said. This is because most company work involves short-term goals, while caring for the elderly is a long process, he said.
“You never know when the nursing care will end. So the stress accumulates like drops of water, little by little in a glass,” he said. “It may look small, but if there is no chance of letting it leak out, (the stress) could lead to tragic incidents.”
Luckily, Kandatsu said he’s found a place to commiserate with fellow burden-bearers.
Oyaji no Kai (Association of Middle-aged Men), a nonprofit organization in Arakawa Ward that Kandatsu joined after his father died in 2001, holds a monthly meeting so members can share their concerns and support each other. Kandatsu is a deputy chief.
“Talking with the members does not change my situation, but it’s a place to release stress,” Kandatsu said. “By running this association, I can also feel I’m still not isolated from society.”
Experts have pointed out that the nursing care system is designed to assist the elderly rather than support family members who look after them.
In Britain, care plans are designed to cater to the people who take care of the elderly as well as the people who receive the services, Saito said. “So those who want to continue working can ask a helper to come to their house” even to do the housework, she said.
Japan is a different story.
In many cases, Kandatsu said, people who are caring for family members cannot get housework assistance from their local governments even if they are working full time. In his case, he was able to get help only because his brother is disabled and he himself has a disease, he said.
“I wish (the government) would support people like us so we are able to work and take care of the family,” he said.
Kandatsu, who also works as a financial planner from home, added that providing advice on how to operate a business from home while caring for family is one type of support the government can offer.
Fujimori the researcher, meanwhile, advocates the idea of companies providing more flexible working environments.
Fujimori, who helped his mother care for his father for nearly three years, said he seriously thought it might be difficult to continue his job when his father became sick. On Friday evenings, he used to jump on a rapid train back to his hometown to spend time with his parents over the weekends, leaving his own family behind in Tokyo.
“It’s important that you can take care of your family while earning a salary, particularly because it could become a long-term commitment,” he said. Flex time or telecommuting should be employee options, he said.
The government is trying to offer a helping hand by building housing for the elderly, with a goal of setting up 600,000 units within 10 years. In August, the land and welfare ministries agreed to subsidize the housing.
Elderly housing isn’t a new concept in Japan. “Tokuyo,” or special elderly group homes, are subsidized by the state. Unfortunately, about 420,000 people are still on the waiting list.
According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, there will be about 19 million people aged 75 or above by 2025, or 4.5 million more compared with this year. As families shrink and the single population gets bigger, the nursing care insurance system is likely to come under stress, Fujimori warned.
“They need to increase public services for nursing care” because families can no longer be the sole source of manpower for support of the elderly, he said. “We’ll need to contribute more by raising nursing care insurance premiums and taxes. People may not like the idea, but that’s how it works — by supporting one another.”