TOKYO - Mrs Yuki Takahashi readily admits that she could never have worked in Hong Kong as a marketing executive in her 20s if she did not have a Filipino maid at home to care for her first child.

After she and husband Kenji, both 43, returned to Japan and she had a second child, the couple were surprised to find no equivalent maid services here.

The Japanese are traditionally reluctant to hire people to do the housework. Live-in housekeepers, who do not come cheap, are only for the very wealthy.

And only foreign residents who are diplomats or senior company executives are allowed by the government to employ foreign maids.

Unlike in Singapore, where many families hire foreign maids to look after young children, working mothers in Japan rely on neighbourhood creches.

For the Takahashis, this looked like a golden business opportunity. With more married women going out to work every year, they saw a growing demand for maid services in Japan. In October 1999, the Takahashis set up a company, called Bears, to meet that need.

'We wanted to make Japanese women happy, just as my maid had made me happy,' Mrs Takahashi told The Straits Times. The firm took its name from a 1976 Hollywood movie, The Bad News Bears, about an ageing coach who turns a Little League baseball team of misfits into champs.

'The Bears team never gave up. It's that spirit that we are trying to emulate,' said Mrs Takahashi, the company's executive director and spokesman.

Of the company's 4,300 staff who perform household chores on demand, most are women and are called 'Bears Ladies'.

The 50 or so men on the roster, who do heavy work like walking Labrador Retrievers or assembling do-it-yourself furniture, are nicknamed 'Muscle Bears'.

The firm initially underestimated demand for its maid services.

In addition to working housewives, mothers too busy caring for exam-mugging children and senior citizens too frail to do housework also wanted help with their household chores.

The most popular monthly package at Bears costs 7,830 yen (S$125) for two hours once a week.

Many clients are working singles longing for a better work-life balance. They do not mind paying for someone to do their washing and ironing so as to free themselves to do leisurely things like taking a trip to the hair salon.

What differentiates Bears Ladies from the part-time kaseifu (housekeeper) of a generation ago is training.

The old-fashioned kaseifu did not have a very good reputation. They were invariably elderly women with no training and who did not expect to have to work terribly hard either. Bears Ladies undergo two weeks of training, including drilling in the use of household appliances and even the art of handing out name cards. They are also taught how to conduct themselves with decorum.

'Even if a Bears Lady is given the key to a user's house, we tell her to ring the doorbell twice before unlocking the door,' said Mrs Takahashi.

'We don't want the master of the house to be caught unawares if he happened to be running late that day and still at home.'

What qualities does the company look for in the staff?

'Bears Ladies, and men, must be cheerful, full of vitality and honest,' Mrs Takahashi said without hesitation.

'Since we started, we have not had a single incidence of theft,' she added.

The staff range from 22 to 74 years old but most are in their mid-50s.'Most users are in their 30s and 40s and ask for Bears Ladies who are of their mother's generation,' said Mrs Takahashi.

With branches covering much of the Tokyo and Osaka areas, Bears is now the industry leader and expects the domestic market to expand further.

Having received awards for best venture and best management already, the Takahashis are planning to branch out overseas.

Singapore is one of their prime targets. 'We haven't decided when. But we will, once we find a good local partner,' said Mrs Takahashi.

'We will tailor our services to suit local culture and customs. But we will train Singaporeans, and foreign maids to offer our Japanese-style services,' she said.