Photo/Illutration A Tokyo Station platform for Shinkansen bullet train services in May 2020 is unusually empty. Many working people who live away from their families lost an opportunity to meet with their loved ones during the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

"Nippon no Tanshin Funin," a report written by author Kiyoshi Shigematsu, takes issue with the eponymous Japanese corporate custom under which married men leave their families behind to live as "temporary bachelors" when assigned to posts that make daily commuting from their homes impossible.

One of the subjects of Shigematsu's report concerns a man from Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, who reluctantly agreed to a transfer to Aichi Prefecture and live away from his family.

Taking a leaf from his student days, the man sets up a makeshift bed from cases of sake when he goes to sleep.

Shigematsu surmises that perhaps this man is resolved to relieve and enjoy his youthful years of bachelorhood. The author also wonders whether the man deliberately refused to buy a proper bed because he is determined to return to Yokkaichi some day.

In any case, Shigematsu senses the inevitable loneliness of every one of the many men he met to write this book.

"Actually, there is no such category as 'tanshin funin' in any transfer order issued by a company," one man tells Shigematsu. "To leave one's family behind is each worker's choice, not the company's."

By tradition, no corporate worker is free to disobey a transfer order. However, this "axiom" appears to be changing now.

The president of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT) recently told The Asahi Shimbun that he will scrap such transfers and put an end to the tanshin funin system within the next four to five years.

This will be done by expanding the company's remote work network, thereby enabling employees to choose their own places of work, the president explained.

As a telecom giant, NTT is obviously at an advantage. Still, any change made by this mammoth group with 320,000 employees should have a positive impact on many other businesses.

Tanshin funin was supported by the traditional Japanese family lifestyle that enabled men to leave household obligations to their spouses.

For too many years, Corporate Japan kept taking for granted the "single worker household" model--man the breadwinner and woman the homemaker. A review of this model now is probably long overdue.

The novel coronavirus pandemic deprived families even of their infrequent chances to be together.

The Asahi Shimbun's poetry section ran this piece by an elementary school boy: "I'll get too big while Dad's in Tokyo and isn't coming home because he's practicing self-restraint."

This sad custom, probably unique to Japan, is now at a crossroads.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 16 

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.