Women as Caregivers
Care of the elderly has long been associated with women. Today almost 90 percent of caregivers are females, and most of them are middle-aged housewives. In Japan, women take on the role of caregivers due to the ideology of the gendered division of labour and the patriarchal family system, which stresses the obedience of women to men, the young to the old, and the daughter-in-law to the mother-in-law. The pressure for the daughter-in-law to take care of the elderly is particularly strong in Japan as there is still a widespread belief that the daughter-in-law should be responsible for her parents-in-law. (Sodei 1995, p. 217)
Due to Japan's aging population, increasing longevity and declining birthrate, the proportion of elderly to the young is increasing every year. As such, this would increase the burden on the young to take care of the elderly, as there will be a smaller pool of people to take care of a larger pool of elderly.
The rise in labour force participation rate and the changing attitudes of women further exacerbates the situation. For example. young and highly educated working women tend to rely more on social services as they are reluctant to take care of the frail elderly. (Ibid., p. 223)
According to the Health and Ministry Welfare, the number of Japanese caregivers is declining, from 400,000 in 2006 to 350,000 in 2009. (Kakuchi 2010) This puts pressure on Japan to hire foreign caregivers. Although the country has began to recruit caregivers from countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, potential candidates must pass a notoriously difficult Japanese language exam before they can become certified to work in Japan. As such, Japan has been criticised for its reluctance to open its doors to these foreigners.
Garon criticizes the ways in which "Japanese-style" welfare policies transfer the costs of elderly care to individuals. (Garon 1997, p. 222-230) According to him, the Japanese government relies on a mix of moral suasion and nihonjinron to spread messages about familial care and community. For this end, they continuously emphasize the differences between Japanese social welfare and that of Western countries, suggesting the superiority of Japan's family-based welfare over ailing Western welfare states.
Having recognised the increasing challenges of elderly care for many women and the limitations of the current system, the state announced a major initiative to hire more helpers and recruit volunteers in 1990, known as the "Gold Plan". The plan promised to introduce 100,000 home helpers and 10,000 local day service centers for the elderly by 1999. Officials further stepped up their efforts to recruit welfare volunteers on a larger scale. In 1993, the National Social Welfare Council counted 4,690,000 volunteers nationwide. (Ibid., p. 228)
Despite these measures, the fact remains that the state continues to rely on married women to perform the bulk of its welfare service. Many of them are recruited from the ranks of women's associations, old-age clubs and local groups that have cooperated in the government's "Japanese-style" welfare campaign throughout the postwar era. (Ibid.) This invariably leads to the exploitation of women's labour because women end up performing labour that would have been done by paid social workers elsewhere. Although there is a system for paid volunteerism, the volunteers are essentially paid the minimum wage and do not receive pensions or health insurance. Many of these volunteers are middle-aged housewives and thus there is a danger of depressing the overall wages of women in the labour market.
It is unlikely that current government initiatives are adequate to meet the demands of elderly care in future. Sodei encourages a change in current attitudes towards sex role differentiation in order to increase men's participation in caregiving. Institutions should also provide more support for both men and women, such as allowing workers to take more special leave for elderly care and making working hours more flexible. The welfare of current caregivers should also not be neglected in order to minimize the turnover rate.
The increasing number of companies that provide speciliazed services for elderly care within the private sector is perhaps a positive sign. However this also calls for regulations on these services to ensure their quality and safety.
Garon, S. (1997). Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kakuchi, S. (2010). Japan befuddled by elderly care debate. Asia Times. Retrieved April 26, 2012, from http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Japan/LH13Dh01.html.
Sodei, T. (1995). Care of the Elderly: A Women's (sic) Issues. In Fujimura-Fanselow K. and Kameda A. (Eds.), Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present and the Future (pp. 213-228). New York: The Feminist Press; The City University of New York.