'Bachelor husbands' leave families to get ahead In Japan, business means everything

October 11, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

TOKYO -- The third time his company asked Shigemichi Fukuda to move here, his family had just bought a home on the edge of Nagoya to ensure fresh air for his 5-year-old son, Shuzo, who had asthma. Mr. Fukuda and his wife agreed that he should go to his new assignment in the smoggy capital by himself.

That was 14 years ago. He is still living alone.

The experience of Mr. Fukuda, 57, a construction company official, is unusual only in the length of his separation.

As Japanese businesses continue to extend the reach and depth of their endeavors across the nation and the globe, the number of separated Japanese husbands is growing. Government statistics show that about 450,000 married men live away from their families, compared to 360,000 in 1980.

Formally, these men are called "tanshin funin-sha," or "persons on assignment alone"; jokingly, they are known as "chonga," or "bachelor husbands."

These days, even Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa is one. His wife is staying home in Kumamoto on the southern island of Kyushu with their second daughter, a high school senior who is preparing for a college entrance examination next year.

To Americans, the Japanese practice of separating families for the corporate good might seem harsh, if not downright cruel. Indeed, it imposes considerable hardship in this nation, which, ironically, prizes the stability of its unique social structure so much that it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for wives and children to accompany husbands on distant assignments.

At the same time, Japan is a nation that has almost made a religion of work. Its people long have not only tolerated but thrived in difficult job and family situations -- including long separations.

Among the public at large, 48 percent believe that tanshin funin is "unavoidable"; almost the same numbers of those surveyed, however, say the practice "should not be done," a Yomiuri newspaper poll found early this year.

Although younger Japanese employees are said to be insisting on having more time for their families, there has been only the faintest trace of change in the practice of mandatory job transfers in government and business: A handful of companies have agreed to limit the geographical area for job changes.

Most of the workers faced with the hard choice usually submit without complaint. One rare bachelor husband sought damages for being separated from his family for six years. But a judge ruled he had no right to protest his transfer as a deprivation of family life. Only five other protests have gone to court -- all of them seeking redress for alleged use of transfers as a union-busting tactic.

"I don't expect tanshin funin to die out. Japanese don't see it as unnatural," says Prof. Ichiro Saga of Kumamoto University of Commerce.

Indeed, it seems so natural there are books offering bachelor husbands advice on such topics as how to cope with living apart, how to claim tax deductions for the extra expenses in maintaining two residences or how to cook simple food. Among the titles: "Self-Management for Smart Drinking."

"In a word, I guess you could say tanshin funin persists 'because it's Japan,' " says Setsuko Tomihara, 58, who lived apart from her husband, an auto parts salesman, for 12 years. "Japanese are earnest people . . . and in Japan, the company is everything. The company -- itself -- has become Japan."

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