National / Social Issues

Shared homes offer respite for Japan’s struggling single mothers

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

The government talks about creating a society where every woman can play an active role, but the chronic shortage of day care is pushing some entrepreneurs to take things into their own hands.

When Megumi Katanuma got a divorce in 2011, she faced a harsh reality: nowhere to live, no job, and two teenagers in junior high and high school. She earlier held a managerial position at a firm run by her husband.

“I knew I had to work,” she said in a recent interview.

Katanuma now runs Codona HAUS, a shared house for single mothers in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, which she set up in September 2014.

Katanuma’s initiative is one of about a dozen across the country run by support groups that offer services for this vulnerable demographic. Single moms pay about ¥80,000 a month for accommodation and child care, and get a place where they can also support each other.

Before Katanuma decided to open the shared house, she found herself a job that gave her a decent life. However, the work failed to compensate her for the family time she sacrificed.

“I spent too little time at home, working overtime and on weekends,” she said. “There were times my children were left alone for the whole day. They had to eat alone three times a day throughout their summer vacation. I felt sorry.”

The “survival life” as she calls her experience prompted Katanuma to open the shared house for women like her.

“I thought women with younger children face even more struggles,” she said.

According to the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, there were about 760,000 one-child single-parent households headed by women as of 2011.

“It won’t solve all the problems single mothers are grappling with, but at least some,” she said. “Everyone moves in here at a different stage in their lives. What’s important is this house is never empty. Even the fact that the lights are on at the entrance makes a difference.”

Katanuma believes such an environment, where women can share information, offer advice and learn from each other, helps single mothers build independent lives.

For a 36-year-old mother of a 5-month-old boy who never married, the shared house was a solution to loneliness and situations where she would have to leave her child alone or cause upheaval when forced to move house in the future.

The woman, who requested anonymity, is a newcomer who settled in early August. Currently on maternity leave, she plans to return to work at a clothing firm in Tokyo in April.

“If you’re only with your child, the house is so quiet,” she said. “I thought this environment, with these people around, would help me raise a happier child. I’d like to stay here for a while.”

The two-story house with four separate bedrooms, and one living room with kitchen annex used as a shared space, can accommodate four families with children up to 15 years old. Two apartments are currently occupied.

The mothers are offered child care twice a week from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m., which enables them to work or have time to themselves. This is provided by nursery staff and Katanuma, who prepares dinner and takes care of the children.

“The monthly fee isn’t cheap, but it’s suitable for people who choose convenience,” Katanuma said. “It’s more affordable than standard apartments requiring a deposit and commissions. Here women can bring only their basic belongings.”

Codona HAUS is one example among a growing number of shared dwellings for single mothers.

Some operators believe such initiatives can help address Japan’s social woes.

Gasshoen, a private provider of social welfare services, believes offering room and board for single mothers who want to work is a win-win situation for the women and for industry, as it helps mitigate the nation’s workforce shortage. The nursing sector in particular is in crisis as Japan grays and its population shrinks. The welfare ministry estimates Japan will need 2.53 million care workers in fiscal 2025.

To address the problem, Gasshoen, headquartered in the Tokyo city of Machida, has established a shared house for single mothers on its staff.

“We hope this will provide a chance for women with children enrolled in day care centers or elementary schools, who are unable to work long hours or on night shifts without assistance,” said Yasushi Sugimoto, strategy manager at Gasshoen.

Gasshoen provides nursing care mainly for the elderly, including intensive care and help for people with disabilities.

The shared house for single mothers, essentially a staff dormitory, is thought to be the first example of its kind in Japan.

The operator hopes it will help provide vulnerable women with a more secure working environment.

Gasshoen’s Sugimoto explained that while women comprise much of the nation’s nursing care workforce, many quit after marriage or having a baby.

“We’ve lengthened maternity leave so mothers can care for their children until the kids are ready to go to day care centers or the facility’s nursery, but recruiting care workers remains a challenge,” Sugimoto said.

The group has tied up with nationwide public employment service Hello Work in a bid to recruit mothers with young children, including single mothers.

“If we don’t employ people of a wider range of backgrounds, this industry will continue to suffer,” Sugimoto said.

He said the group aims to help women by offering full-time jobs much earlier than is usual in Japan by removing the day care headache.

In addition, single mothers, in particular those with no stable income, often struggle with finding somewhere to live, said Codona HAUS operator Katanuma.

The latest survey by the welfare ministry, carried out in 2011, found that 80.6 percent of single mothers have jobs but only 39.4 percent of working mothers are in regular employment.

However, although Gasshoen hoped to attract single mothers, so far it has struggled to find them, Sugimoto said.

“They can’t cover overnight or early shifts without assistance, so they give up on seeking work through employment services.”

Gasshoen’s staff dormitory has space specifically for single mothers with children. The facility was finished last month with capacity for up to five families.

It has a day care center where children can stay from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays.

In the Machida facility, mothers can benefit from child care support — the group dispatches a helper to take care of a child or help with homework and prepare dinner to let mothers rest. The service is available free of charge once a week.

Satoshi Akiyama, the architect who designed Gasshoen’s Machida shared house, says the project should not be seen as charity but as offering a protective environment for vulnerable people.

Akiyama, who also represents Parenting Home, which established Japan’s first share houses for single parent households around Tokyo, hopes such an environment will encourage mothers with young children to return to the workforce.

“Most people think that single mothers live in poverty, but that’s not the case,” he said, noting a main obstacle to the career development of single mothers is finding somewhere to live.

Akiyama stressed that shared facilities can “make women feel that’s the place they want to spend their lives and raise children.”

The group Parenting Home, where child care service is also available, built its first shared house for single mothers in March 2012 in Kawasaki, and by that November had opened three more, in Kawasaki, Yokohama and Tokyo.

“The space where people spend time heavily affects their wellbeing and productivity, and it might be reflected in women’s participation in bringing up children,” Akiyama said.

Similar share houses run by different operators have been established in other areas, including Okinawa, Osaka, Saga and Saitama Prefectures. Some offer accommodation for unemployed single mothers, but Akiyama said more facilities are needed.

“The number is still small,” he said.