A new growth industry: professional housekeeping
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!