(Bloomberg) — Hiromi Nakasaki remembers working past midnight on New Year’s Eve and during holidays as a business systems consultant in Japan’s notoriously long-houred 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 kilometers (420 miles) away in the city of Matsuyama.
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“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 parents-in-law 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.
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“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 elderly care when they can work full time. The national and regional governments are struggling with more than 1,000 trillion yen ($8.3 trillion) in debt, making it hard to pay for nursing homes.
In the five years to 2012, 486,900 Japanese 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 elderly 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.
The government’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 Japanese 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 elderly 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 Abe’s 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.
“Elderly 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 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 healthcare provider would have dishonored the family name, said Matsuoka, from Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo.
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 yen 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.”