OSAKA -- Japan's housekeeping service operators are finally ready to send their first foreign workers into Japanese homes. These skilled housekeepers are expected to satisfy the growing demand for domestic services as the nation's population ages and more women continue working after marriage.
To ease the tight supply, the government has partially lifted the ban on employing foreign housekeepers, but hurdles remain -- namely, how receptive Japanese households will be to the idea of non-Japanese domestic help.
Making the grade
In late April, eight Filipino women attended a ceremony to mark the completion of their two-week training course at an Osaka facility of housekeeping service provider Duskin. "Thank you for providing this training. We will work hard," one of the trainees said in fluent Japanese.
The women all have experience doing housework for Japanese families in the Philippines, and they also hold certificates in Japanese fluency. Kazuo Okai, Duskin's executive director, said he is confident that these Filipino housekeepers will have no problems communicating with their Japanese customers.
According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan's housekeeping service market was worth some 100 billion yen ($877 million) in fiscal 2012 and is expected to eventually reach 600 billion yen.
Duskin's sales from housekeeping services came to 10.5 billion yen for fiscal 2015, up more than 4% from the year before. Sales likely rose further in fiscal 2016.
The company has high hopes for expanding this business as its formerly profitable food operations, including the Mister Donut chain of doughnut shops slump.
Despite the strong demand, housekeeping services, like many other sectors in Japan, are suffering from a severe labor crunch. Without enough housekeepers to dispatch, companies are sometimes forced to turn down orders, especially during the busiest season, toward the end of the year.
In 2015, the government removed restrictions on the employment of foreign housekeepers in designated zones -- Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures and Tokyo. Applicant must have at least one year of experience in the field and speak fluent Japanese, among other requirements. Service operators must hire foreigners directly as full-time employees and pay them at least the same as their Japanese peers.
But even with enough foreign workers available, the big question is how Japanese customers will react. Service operators charge the same amount regardless of who does the housework. The concern is that "not all customers will accept foreigners," said Chisa Kajihara, in charge of Duskin's housekeeping business.
"Even if they can speak good Japanese, I'm not sure yet if they'll fully understand where in the house I want them to clean up," said a man in Osaka who has been using the housekeeping service.
To eliminate such concerns and respond swiftly to possible complaints from customers, Duskin will initially dispatch foreign staff members jointly with Japanese colleagues.
In the midterm, Duskin plans to expand its foreign workforce to some 100 housekeepers. However, its stringent criteria -- notably experience working for Japanese families and language fluency -- could limit the number of applicants.
The company plans to hire 16 foreigners for the time being, including the eight workers ready to be assigned. It is a modest target, but even Duskin is not sure it will be able to achieve it.
"We want to hire more workers," Okai said. "But the job requires certain skills and experience, and the pool of qualified candidates is limited."