School closures due to the spread of COVID-19 are pushing Japan’s overburdened working parents to resort to services they have traditionally hesitated to use — housekeeping and babysitting.

Surveys have shown that most know about the services, but many are reluctant to try them. Some feel uncomfortable allowing strangers into their homes, while others do not see the point of paying professionals to do chores they can do themselves.

But a tipping point came last month when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested that all elementary, junior high and high schools shut down temporarily, starting March 2, to contain the spread of infection. Companies spotted an opportunity to persuade parents to make the leap, and began offering free services and discounts.

The effect was immediate.

On March 5, housekeeping provider CaSy Co. launched an additional service to make up for the loss of school lunches, with housekeepers visiting the homes of parents with schoolchildren to cook five days worth of dishes for bento boxed lunches, thereby lessening cooking chores.

The three-hour deal is 40 percent cheaper than a regular CaSy cooking plan, at ¥4,500 before tax and fees for transportation, and customers can choose their preferred staff member. The company started accepting requests when the school closures began.

Demand across the company’s bento-making plans from March 2 to Wednesday has surged to about 7 times that seen in the same period last year, according to the company. Many of the customers were “inactive” users who had registered but never used any service.

Akiyuki Kondo, a 37-year-old father in Tokyo, was among first-time users of CaSy services. Kondo said he telecommutes but does not have time to prepare lunch for his daughter, who is in first grade. He took advantage of the discounted service as soon as he saw the promotional tweet.

“It would be a lot of trouble to cook three meals a day,” Kondo said in a user feedback survey conducted by the company.

“I could have bought food for my child but I felt safer with dishes cooked by housekeepers who considered nutritional balance,” he added.

CaSy spokeswoman Yuriko Yamamoto said the company hopes the new bento service, which will run through April 6, will nudge parents to make use of professional help.

Medical and nursing care company NichiiGakkan Co. went so far as to start a free housekeeping service in limited areas on March 5 for parents with schoolchildren. Users can make use of two one-hour sessions, each involving chores such as cleaning, laundry and cooking, while paying only for the housekeepers’ transportation costs. According to the company, the number of bookings for all of the company’s services from March 5 to Tuesday had grown about 85 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Cooking is one of the more popular services, NichiiGakkan said. But besides cooking, more parents have also been looking for someone to watch over their children and compensate for the loss of classroom time with educational interactions at home.

A bilingual babysitting matching site run by Tokyo-based CareFinder K.K. has seen a spike in bookings, aided by discounts for new registrants and coupons for all users — which will be valid until the end of this month.

During the period from March 2 through Thursday, the average number of bookings seen each day had tripled compared with the same period last year, according to the company. New user registrations had also doubled over the same period.

“Many households use our service to hire not just a babysitter but also a private tutor who interacts with kids in English,” said Megumi Moss, founder and CEO of CareFinder. After schools were closed inquiries poured in, including from those seeking a bilingual nanny who could help their children keep up with English education, she said.

About 50 percent of the firm’s customers had been couples in which either one or both of the parents were foreign nationals. But this month saw the proportion of all-Japanese couples grow in particular, according to Moss.

Despite the current buzz, housekeeping and babysitting services still have obstacles to overcome. According to a 2018 survey of 3,091 adults by Nomura Research Institute Ltd., 77.7 percent of respondents said they knew about homemaking services but had never used them. Only 1.8 percent said they were using one. The most cited reason among those who did not use the service was that there was no need, followed by resistance to allowing a stranger into their homes and high prices.

Some Japanese parents say that although the school shutdown has thrust more of the responsibility of child care onto them, they are still not resorting to housekeeping or babysitting services. Moe Morimoto, a 42-year-old mother of three, looks after her sixth grader son at home while she works remotely for Kyowa Co., which sells beauty products online.

For now, she has few incentives to use housekeeping services. “One thing that bothers me is ushering (a housekeeper) into my house,” said Morimoto. “I’m not comfortable with it and may feel obliged to clean rooms” so they look presentable, she said.

When Morimoto goes to her office twice a week, she can turn to her neighborhood friends to look after her son. She said housekeeping services “could be an option” if schools remained shut for an extended period and teleworking does not work out.

The free services and discounts could end up being a fad, but Kana Takeda, senior consultant at the Center for Strategic Management & Innovation at Nomura Research Institute, argues that these campaigns will add up to more than that.

Coupled with greater household and child care duties, the promotions on offer have prompted those who were wavering, or had never considered such services, to try them.

According to Takeda, user satisfaction for housekeeping services is generally very high. Even if first-time users do not become regulars, she believes many will at least think of the services as “a backup option” for contingencies.

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