A woman’s job in Japan: watch kids, care for parents, work late



Hiromi Nakasaki remembers working past midnight on New Year’s Eve and during holidays as a business systems consultant in Japan’s notoriously harsh work environment. Last summer, at the height of her career, she quit.

A consultant in the software industry in Tokyo, Nakasaki uprooted her life to look after her ailing mother, roughly 670 km away in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture.

“I didn’t want to wait until something happened to her,” said Nakasaki, 55. “I wanted to stay with my mother and help her live as long as she could.”

Nakasaki’s choice is one that faces a growing number of women who have successfully battled for recognition in a male-dominated business world, only to have to drop out once their parents or in-laws become old.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promotes the idea that the workforce needs more women, the government has done little to lift the burden of their traditional obligation to care for the aged.

“The government wants women to fare well in the labor market, but you can’t make it work if women are also asked to care for their parents,” said Yoko Yajima, a research analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co. in Tokyo. “A spotlight is finally on how to help people juggle work and elderly care.”

What that spotlight illuminates is not very encouraging.

Japan is aging fast, adding 2.6 million pensioners in the next 10 years. The proportion of young to old is falling, putting a greater burden on fewer children to care for parents. Restrictive immigration policies mean a shortage of care workers or affordable home care services. Women are marrying later, narrowing the window between child care and elder care when they can work full time. The national and regional governments are struggling with more than ¥1 quadrillion in debt, making it hard to pay for nursing homes.

In the five years to 2012, 486,900 people quit or changed jobs to care for older family members, according to the statistics bureau. About 80 percent were women.

“Japan has been a male society and men still make more money on average, so women tend to provide family care,” said Reiko Ishiyama, who creates elder care plans at Tokio Marine Nichido Better Life Service Co. “It’s rooted in Japanese culture that women take care of household needs.”

While the proportion of working-age women with jobs rose to a record 63.6 percent in 2014, they are only paid about 72 percent as much as men. Abe said Japan should be “a society where women shine,” and he wants to see women account for at least 30 percent of management roles by 2020.

“How can he say that?” Nakasaki said, shaking her head and sneering. “He’s kidding me.”

As an unmarried manager, she said she worked long hours, often catching the last train home at midnight. While the money was good, she was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to find a reliable nursing home to care for her mother, she said.

The government cut funding for nursing homes this year to rein in social service costs, causing more elderly to have to receive care at home. It’s efforts to help women remain in the workforce have largely revolved around improving child care.

“We need to provide them more support outside the workplace,” Abe said in a Bloomberg View editorial last month. “This is why I expanded the number of openings at child care facilities by 200,000 since 2013 and increased assistance for families raising children.”

About 524,000 seniors were on waiting lists for nursing homes as of March 2014, 24 percent up from five years ago, according to the health ministry. Mitsubishi UFJ’s Yajima said many people quit without saying anything about family care needs to their employers because they feel it would do no good.

“There’s a limit” to what the government can do for elder care, said Mayuko Nakai, a deputy director at the labor ministry. “We must create work environments where those who provide family care can continue to work.”

With the Abe administration hamstrung by public debt and stuttering efforts to lift wages and economic growth, some private companies like Marubeni Corp. and the local unit of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are stepping in to try to keep female staff from leaving.

In 2011, Marubeni surveyed workers in their 40s and 50s and found 11 percent of them were looking after family members and 84 percent expected to do so within five years. Over the past decade, the company has taken various steps such as adding paid holidays and extending unpaid leave up to a year.

“Elder care can last a long time, and if you quit, you may become too old, say 65, to be re-hired,” said Rie Konomi, general manager of diversity management at Marubeni. “We want our employees to be able to juggle work and family care. We want them to continue because we need their experience.”

In January, Goldman Sachs began paying for up to 100 hours of extra nursing per year for family members on top of existing health insurance benefits.

“This will help everybody, but realistically, family obligation more often falls on women,” said Gary Chandler, head of human capital management at Goldman in Tokyo.

Even when support does exist, cultural factors make it hard for women to compete. In Japan, the duty of looking after parents traditionally falls to the wife of the eldest son.

That was the case for Yuka Matsuoka, who took care of her father-in-law for about 12 years while raising two daughters, after a stroke left him partially paralyzed. Using a private health care provider would have dishonored the family name, said Matsuoka of Saitama Prefecture.

He developed dementia and would often yell at her, or leave the home to wander the streets, she said. Stress gave her stomachaches and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital several times.

“I was losing the value of my own existence because I was only speaking to babies who have yet to speak, and my father-in-law with dementia,” said Matsuoka, 44. “I felt like we were alone in the world.”

The burden meant she could only work part time, earning less than the ¥1.03 million per year tax threshold for a spouse.

The nation’s concentration on long working hours also makes it difficult to juggle work and family life. Only 16 percent of 2.4 million workers caring for family members said they used support measures guaranteed by law, such as time off, paid leave and shorter work hours, according to the statistics bureau.

At Marubeni, none of its 4,289 employees took a leave for family care in the year ended March 2014, while they used less than a half of paid vacation, according to the company.

Makiko Sone consulted with her employer when her mother fell ill in 2013. Kyodo Seihan Printing Co., with fewer than 100 staffers, created a work-from-home program for her. While she was allowed to continue as a desktop publishing operator, she was demoted from being a manager. The company promised her old job back when she could return, said Sone, 53, who lives in Kyoto with her 76-year-old mother.

“We don’t want to lose her talent,” said Seiji Azuma, a senior manager at the company in Nara Prefecture. “With the aging population, we will face a hard time to gather workers.”

For Nakasaki, the decision to discard a stable income was partly driven by her experience with her father’s death. He died within a week of being hospitalized for lung cancer in August 2012, and she wasn’t there when he said his final words. She doesn’t want the same thing to happen with her mother, whose hands are too weak to uncap a plastic bottle and whose legs are too fragile to carry her upstairs.

Now, Nakasaki visits Tokyo every month to promote herself as a freelance business consultant.

“You can’t take the next step unless you believe in yourself,” she said. “If there’s a job, I have the skills to get it done.”

  • rarma

    Statistics says bedridden people last only less than five years. Elderly people may have to exercise to keep their muscles before its too late.

    • Starviking

      But there is a feeling in society now to try and keep people alive as long as possible – quality of life be-damned.

  • I don’t just get it why companies push people to work midnight or OT? Personal life and work life has to be valance,

    • Starviking

      IMHO it’s usually not working to midnight, it’s “staying at work until midnight” – which is totally different.

      • Btd

        that’s probably where you work…. were people like this lady work I guess it’s really working. It’s the same all over the planet, if you’re in a good paid job stop complaining and get on with your life. If you wants kids and a high powered job also up to you. It’s not the government’s or the companies business. The company does exist to make a profit, full stop, it’s not a social enterprise is it?!

      • James M

        “The company does exist to make a profit, full stop,…” This might have been true 100 years ago but it certainly isn’t the case now: at least not in any major industrialized country. Almost all large public corporations now have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments and issue voluminous annual CSR reports. While CSR departments main focus is on ensuring compliance with laws and safety and environmental regulations, etc., social contribution activities are also an important part of their work.

        Any company that tried to operate as you suggest would be put out of business within a year.

      • Btd

        This is of course also true nowadays and will always be true, especially if you’re listed, the bottom line is what counts! Of course a company has also a certain social and moral responsibility towards its stakeholders but they find their limit when profits are hurt by it. Turn it the way you want but the fact remains that reconcile a high powered job with your private life is impossible. Everyone telling that’s not true doesn’t know what they talk about or is a liar/troll – This is getting worse and will turn even uglier in the future with a planet totally overpopulated churning out graduates that are not needed. The one’s that will get the premium jobs will get them because they help the company to stay going concern and rake in healthy profits to be invested in R&D and surely only minimal in “work-life” balance….

      • James M

        Actually, I largely agree with you! You, are also, I think, making the same basic point as the women quoted in the article. They are complaining that the government is making all these lofty pronouncements about expanding the presence of women in the workforce without building the social infrastructure that would make that possible. And, Prime Minister Abe is expressly talking about dramatically increasing the percentage of women in what you refer to as ‘high-powered’ jobs.

        I think this an area where the Japanese government needs to ‘put up or shut up’.

      • Btd


      • lasolitaria

        You talk like CSR is a necessary element of a business. It’s obviously not. No company will go out of business for lack of a CSR department. No company will go out of business because they don’t help some inner city community, do something with recycled materials or hire more women (unless it becomes mandatory to do those things by force of law). To suggest otherwise reveals a severe disconnect with reality. It’s like saying roads will be empty the day after they close the ministry of transportation.

        CSR is not even always desirable. Believe it or not, some of us like it better when companies work for profit. We just want companies to offer a better product/service or a better price, take the money and shut the hell up. We don’t want to hear that Adidas is saving the planet. We don’t want to listen to Microsoft babbling endlessly about how much they care about kids in Africa. We don’t want to get life advice from Coke. We don’t want or expect any form of assistance from any company whatsoever.

      • James M

        lasolitaria, if you are self-sufficient and don’t need anything from companies more power to you! However, I assure you that you are wrong about CSR being unnecessary for businesses. Have a CEO of a major Japanese company hold a press conference and express the points in your comment. I guarantee you that the company’s stock price would plunge, its banks and shareholders would go nuts and it would face ferociously bad press. It might even risk bankruptcy.

        The Japanese public, doesn’t expect: it demands that major corporations make an attempt to be responsible social actors and I totally agree with them. I would hate to live in country where corporations could act as you suggest.

      • lasolitaria

        C’mon, you know what “necessary” means. Businesses don’t inherently need CSR to work at all. It’s been MADE that way (forced into necessity) by external pressure from power-hungry governments and busybodies who want to impose their morals and guilt on everybody else. Companies ran for centuries without CSR and they worked just fine.

        This line of yours is gold: “I would hate to live in country where corporations could act as you suggest”. What? You’d hate to live in a country where corporations could focus on offering good products/services/prices but wouldn’t be demanded CSR? Cause that’s what I’m saying, so there’s nothing wrong about my points. There’s nothing wrong with a shoe company saying “No, we don’t have any project to help peasants in Bolivia or a quota for hiring women; we just make damn good shoes, period”.

        And nothing would happen. No stock would plunge, even if they face bad press, as long as they keep making profit, because that’s the only thing necessary for a company to stay in business. The moment a company announces “We’re having losses…” is the moment shareholders and investors flee faster than the company spokesman can say “…but wait, we’ve been building a village in Kenya!”.

        Look at the computer hardware industry. It’s a highly dynamic and extremely competitive market that caters mostly to informed male customers who only care about performance and bang for buck. They can’t afford to buy into the CSR dogma because their customers are specialists themselves so they know what they want and can smell the bs. Now look at their advertising: there’s a lot of talk about performance, heaps of technical information, statistics and numbers, lots of detailed reviews and test results. There’s very little talk about how the company is using solar panels and sustainable toilets. That’s how advertising used to be not too long ago.

  • I love the excuse that it’s “rooted in Japanese culture” that women should take care of aging parents. That’s the typical justification for doing nothing…

    For very skilled workers, it may be a bit easier, as companies would be interested even in part-time contracts (tough to find the right people these days). But for the others, it’s not easy at all.

    Even the child care that Abe is so proud about is a mess: priority goes to mothers who already have a job, so if you had the bad idea to quit before the birth, then it’s almost impossible to get a kindergarten spot. You have to wait until your kid is old enough for shogakko…

  • lasolitaria

    It used to be about giving women the chance to work outside of home. Now it’s about ensuring that women work outside of home.

    Apparently, taking care of her children and her elderly folks is not only a burden for the modern woman, but also much more of a burden than working her behind off as an office drone to make profit for someone who isn’t even a relative of hers. Go figure.