(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.