A new growth industry: professional housekeeping

TOKYO —

A photograph in Shukan Asahi (Dec 27) shows an elderly woman cleaning a toilet. Some things grab your attention because they’re remarkable, others do precisely because they’re not. What’s the hidden message? There must be one. Why notice such a humble activity otherwise?

Yasuko Kawasaki, 68, is a professional housekeeper. She works for an agency called Bears, based in Kamakura and covering an area stretching from Tokyo to Nara. Bears is one of nine house cleaning firms listed by Shukan Asahi. It’s a surging industry, with an annual turnover in 2012 of 98 billion yen – up from 81 billion in 2011. Increasingly, with more and more women working outside the home and the population at large aging rapidly, housework is becoming a specialized skill. Exit the traditional housewife, enter the itinerant housecleaning pro.

It hasn’t quite come to that yet, and a poll conducted by Shukan Asahi of 1,000 men and women shows a fair amount of resistance to the idea – fewer than 20% would consider using such a service. Still, in a separate survey by Nomura Research, 93% of those who do employ a call-in house cleaner profess themselves satisfied, and Asahi’s poll finds interest growing among women in their 30s and 40s. The pressures of juggling a career, child-rearing and homemaking are the obvious explanation.

We see Kawasaki hard at work on the toilet and bathtub in the Tokyo home of a 39-year-old journalist with two children ages 4 and 2. The journalist had hesitated at first, embarrassed at what a stranger might find in the deepest nooks and crannies of her house. And in fact Kawasaki found a great deal – clots of hair in the bathtub drain, and so on. She brushes off the journalist’s apologies. It’s her job after all. (Bears charges 7,830 yen for two hours.) Disdaining brush and gloves, she plunges her bare hands into the toilet bowl. “A brush can’t get everything, and with rubber gloves on you lose your sense of touch and miss things,” she explains.

She works six full days a week and wouldn’t have it any other way. “I don’t have any special hobbies. What am I supposed to do?” she smiles. “Sit home and look at my husband’s face all day long? I’d rather clean. Why not? There’s no stress.”

Bears’ staff is 4,300 strong, their average age 53. Kawasaki herself is well over that, and the oldest employee is 83.

It’s an interesting perspective from which to gather insights on how society is evolving. “When we first opened (in 1999),” a Bears’ spokesperson tells Shukan Asahi, “the vast majority of our clients, 70%, were working couples. But in 2011, working couples were down to 45%. Lately a growing number of customers, 35% at present, are people living alone – working men and women and the elderly.”

In 2011 the ministry of internal affairs and communication calculated the annual nationwide economic value of homemaking and other unpaid work as amounting to 88.6 trillion yen. It’s an astonishing figure – roughly a quarter of Japan’s GDP. Per woman (since housework remains largely “woman’s work”) it works out to 19 million yen a year. An enviable income indeed, if it actually existed!

  • -4

    homleand

    This is definitely a growth industry. Once you've had help around the house it's just impossible to live without. My wife and I both need to focus every minute we have on more value added propositions, so we don't have time to do work that costs far less than what we would earn in that same time. It's a value equation with efficiency on one side and cleanliness (which truly is next to Godliness) on the other. Hopefully firms like Bears can grow, I think there's value to be added in personal assistants, shoppers, drivers and pool cleaners, as well as nannies, gardeners, butlers and caretakers for both the elderly and horses. Abe is creating a lot of opportunity for more jobs here, and these are jobs for Japanese citizens that they can be proud of. I can only imagine the joy it brings their children when they get home at the end of the day and describe what they saw when cleaning my amazing house.

  • -1

    MarkX

    Homeland, i won't be as tongue in cheek as you, but i see this is the future of Abenomics. The rich getting richer and the poor becoming housekeepers and the like!

  • -4

    as_the_crow_flies

    She works six full days a week and wouldn’t have it any other way. “I don’t have any special hobbies. What am I supposed to do?” she smiles. “Sit home and look at my husband’s face all day long? I’d rather clean. Why not? There’s no stress.”

    Sad, sad, sad. Thankfully for Japan, many Japanese work to live. Thankfully for most of us, we don't.

  • 1

    sangetsu03

    The rich getting richer and the poor becoming housekeepers and the like!

    When I was young my family was poor. They weren't poor because of any government policy, or lack thereof, they were poor because they were ignorant and irresponsible. They were ignorant because they lacked education, and thought that they were unable to improve their lot. They were ireesponsible because they thought very little about the value of their labor, or how to wisely spend the money they earned. Like many poor people, they preferred instant gratification to making a budget or any kind of financial planning. They had opportunities to do better, but they never took advantage of them, preferring to avoid the risk, and they were uncomfortable doing anything different than what they were used to doing. I learned a lot about how not to live by looking at my own family.

    Abe's policies are a mixed bag, but one can never say that what is good for the rich is necessarily bad for the poor. Reducing the numbers of the rich does not decrease the numbers of the poor, the opposite is true. Making it harder to be rich makes it easier to be poor. The best way to get out of being poor is to aspire to be rich. Not dreaming about being rich, but setting goals and working toward them. One may not necessarily become rich, but will likely end up much better off than before. Many formerly poor people have become rich, it happens all the time.

    The housekeeping company above is a good example of what happens when someone wants to become rich, or at least successful. The company employs more than 4000 people, many of whom would not have a job otherwise. Had it been more difficult for the person who started the company to have done so, the company might not exist, it would not be employing these thousands of people, and that much tax revenue would not have been generated for Japan.

    I use one of these services myself, and find it very convenient. The housekeeper is 70 or so years old, which was surprising to me, but she is a very nice person, and she does a great job.

  • 1

    lucabrasi

    @sangetsu

    Typical pro-capitalist arguments. Creating jobs isn't some kind of blessed vocation that people do out of kindness. They need employees to make money, and they pay as little as possible to generate maximum profits. That's the logic of the system.

    Belsen provided hundreds of jobs.

  • 7

    Hide Suzuki

    I don't understand why people see this as something negative. Lots of old people who might have hard time getting an office are employed and providing services that busy people need, being productive part of society instead of just, retired

    Hopefully this industry will grow bigger and bigger

  • -3

    lucabrasi

    @)Hide

    God forbid that anyone should retire, eh? Not when a few more hours of productivity can be squeezed out of them before they croak.

  • 2

    plasticmonkey

    Bears charges 7,830 yen for two hours.

    And it pays its elderly and experienced housekeepers how much?

    economic value of homemaking and other unpaid work as amounting to 88.6 trillion yen . . . Per woman (since housework remains largely “woman’s work”) it works out to 19 million yen a year.

    But the vast majority of the revenue is vacuumed up by the corporation, er, I mean the 'job creators'.

  • 1

    wildwest

    Work until you die and die working, thats the way it is for us with less intelect than Sangetsu. Thank you.

  • -3

    gaijinfo

    This industry will never really take off like it has in other countries. Not unless the price comes down. One of my friends called somebody from a TV add, and they came and only cleaned two rooms. Total price was 30,000 yen.

    They spent the entire day.

    This lady charges 7.8K for two hours, but it doesn't say how much she cleans in that time. I'm not sure spending two hours on the bath tub is cost effective for most folks.

    In reality, most industries are highly dependent on price, not dependent on unique cultural aspects as this article pretends.

    Bottom line: If a service offered to clean your entire apartment, in two hours, for 4000 yen, THEN this industry would take off.

    But just like everything else in Japan, the price is high because they need to put on a good show.

  • 1

    Alisha Powell

    thanks for some very insightful comments !

  • 5

    Ramzel

    I don't understand all the negative comments.

    I've used several cleaning services and some are better than others. Large agencies obviously take a cut for offering constant customers to the cleaners, insurance (in case they break anything) and scheduling. I believe it is a 50/50 split or so.

    I switched to an independent person, who is cheaper and better, but she is in her late 60s. Great job though and she loves her job. Some people love to work and why would you stop them from doing so?

  • 2

    Kurobune

    Great post, Ramzel !

  • 2

    Hide Suzuki

    @ucabrasi

    They are not slaves, they can retire if they want to, duh. With this industry they can choose to work or retire

  • 6

    philly1

    A couple of things:

    Disdaining brush and gloves, she plunges her bare hands into the toilet bowl. "A brush can't get everything, and with rubber gloves on you lose your sense of touch and miss things," she explains.

    First, I sincerely hope she cleans the kitchen and other rooms ahead of the toilet. Surgeons operate with rubber gloves all the time. Their sense of touch seems to be just fine. The dear lady should use them as not doing so is a serious risk to her health.

    Second, the rate of pay is not high. It's comparable to what is charged in Canada. It costs more than twice as much to call in a plumber or an electrician or trade. You think housecleaning isn't a skilled job? Wait until you must do all of it properly, consistently and well, not just "lend a hand" by indiscriminately swishing a cloth here and there.

    Third, people who are used to regular work find the opportunity to sit around stressful. Work well done can be a tremendous reward to the person doing it.

    Fourth, women who have had some autonomy in their homes before their husbands (who were rarely home before 10 PM) retired have none. Now their husbands sit home with them all day and no doubt have a lot to say (all of a sudden) about how things are managed at home. No wonder they want an opportunity to get out of the house.

    Fifth, the need to have something to do is also especially true of people who are used to doing physical work as their bodies have become accustomed to action. As soon as they sit around both body and mind begin to atrophy. As long as you have your health and love your work (or the money that comes with it) it's a win-win situation. What isn't a win-win is people who must do it because they haven't the means to live unless they work.

    Last, a reliable housekeeper is godsend for people who cannot do the work themselves on account of busy schedules and/or the status of their health. It's a noble, worthy and necessary profession.

  • 1

    Novenachama

    If you find a good housekeeper that you know you just can't live without, you want to make sure the relationship remains mutually rewarding because ultimately having a great housekeeper should help contribute to your peace of mind. It may be a splurge, but it is definitely worth the money. Having a housekeeper is one of the few ways you can purchase true stress relief. After all don't you love coming home to a totally clean house. It's heavenly.

  • 0

    soldier2

    Amazed that this is newsworthy - even though I've lived in Japan over a decade I never realised how unusual it is to have a cleaner here. Totally normal in the UK.

  • 0

    Krish51

    The job should not be done under complusion and at the cost of personal hygine.

  • 2

    Carcharodon

    I can see her with hair curlers and scarf....just like Hilda Ogden....

    his lady charges 7.8K for two hours

    No SHE doesn't, the agency does, I am curious to how much of that fee goes to her and how much the agency skims. If she was cunning she would slowly build up a rapport and trust of clients and then take them on privately at lower than agency rates. yet more for her as she'd get 100% of the earnings. That is if the agency doesnt rotate their cleaners to prevent this.

    The lack of gloves in the toilet bowl is just nasty though!

  • 5

    Peter Payne

    I would love to have some help around the house, as my wife and I work 8-12 hours a day. Where I am, in rural Japan, you couldn't get help like this because it would be putting on airs, and we'd be ashamed. Because everyone has to pretend to be middle class in Japan, no matter the reality that's made it presence known over the past two decades.

    I know I'll be voted down for this. I don't care. Japan is a wonderful country, but so odd at times, too.

  • 0

    nahaman

    When we couldn't get any locals to clean our house, we tried a local language school where the (mostly) Chinese students were happy to find baito that paid more than minimum wage. We gave then 1000 yen an hour for 4 hours a week, did not abuse them verbally like most local employers, and so had pretty good results except for the expected turnover when they went off to Tokyo to work or to another school. One did steal from us, but I think that's a risk whenever a stranger works in your home. In the end though, it turned out to be easier to do it ourselves, especially as kids got older and more capable of cleaning up after themselves.

  • -1

    sangetsu03

    Typical pro-capitalist arguments. Creating jobs isn't some kind of blessed vocation that people do out of kindness. They need employees to make money, and they pay as little as possible to generate maximum profits. That's the logic of the system.

    Why does a person start a business? The answer is simple, to make a better life. A lot of things are involved, not the least of which are risk and hard work. Most new businesses fail. Those who succeed are often able to provide a better life for their founders, and those which grow often require more time and effort than the founder of the business has, so he hires people.

    The amount of pay is not decided by the business owner, it is decided by the market. The business owner of course wants to pay as little as he can, just as a shopper tries to pay as little as he or she can when shopping. The market commands different levels of pay for different professions or trades. If the pay is too low for a particular job, no one will do that job. A business owner must raise how much he will pay an employee until it reaches the level that a potential employee finds acceptable.

    I am pro-capitalist, because I know the system works. I myself am an example. Capitalism has done more to increase quality of life and life expectancy than anything else which has been tried. Socialism has lead to more death and misery than anything else which has been tried.

  • 2

    Yukufubu

    What is worth? People who stay at home waiting for money, or people working out to earn money? We don't speak about slavery, but work :) I agree it's not always fine, but no job is fine everytime... Why always criticize? Maybe those housekeepers are proud to earn what they need to live! It's not a shame ;)

  • 2

    Tessa

    After all don't you love coming home to a totally clean house. It's heavenly.

    Yes, I know what this feels like. It's called "living alone!"

  • 0

    Scooter Ivy

    It surprises me that this is newsworthy. I know two people, a friend and a cousin, with their own cleaning business. The clean houses, offices, and churches.

  • -2

    Frungy

    (Bears charges 7,830 yen for two hours.)

    ... even if she gets just half of what the agency charges then she's making 11745 if she works a standard 8 hour day (3 clients per day = 6 hours, plus 20 minutes lead-in/lead-out/travel time per client = 1hour +1 hour lunch).

    At 11745 per day if she works a standard 20 day month she's making 234 900 per month... which is actually ABOVE the average Japanese salary.

    ... and I'd be surprised if the agency is taking more than 30% of her earnings.

Login to leave a comment

OR
  • 営業/建設機械  

    営業/建設機械  
    MB Japan 株式会社、埼玉県
    給与:給与要相談 歩合制 給与参考例・・・2013年度営業職月給平均 45万円  
  • TOEICインストラクター

    TOEICインストラクター
    Berkeley House Language Center / バークレーハウス語学センター、東京都
    給与:時給 3,000円 相談可
  • TOEFL・IELTSインストラクター

    TOEFL・IELTSインストラクター
    Berkeley House Language Center / バークレーハウス語学センター、東京都
    給与:時給 3,500円 相談可
  • 海外留学担当者

    海外留学担当者
    Berkeley House Language Center / バークレーハウス語学センター、東京都
    給与:月給 25万円 ~ 35万円 相談可
  • PR and Communication Specialist

    PR and Communication Specialist
    Italian Chamber of Commerce in Japan、東京都
    給与:給与についての記載なし

More in Kuchikomi

View all

View all