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Family 'desertion' in Japan tied to school problems

By Geoffrey MurraySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1980



Tokyo

Yoichi Kato received an important promotion from his company the other day and immediately made plans to leave his family. He did so reluctantly, however, and with the sad compliance of his wife and three young children.

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It is a dilemna many Japanese are facing these days as more and more salaried employees, when faced with a promotion entailing a transfer to another part of the country, are proceeding to their new posts alone.

the blame for the breakup of Japanese businessmen's families is being laid squarely on the country's educational system.

The Nippon Telephon & Telegraph Corporation, for example, discovered in a survey that 51 percent of staff moving into Tokyo from other areas on new assignments cited education as the dominant factor in their decision to leave the family behind.

The percentage rose to 80 percent when the survey was narrowed to employees with children attending senior high school.

Japanese children are attending school in record numbers. it is estimated that less than 7 percent do not attend a senior high school and more than 50 percent of high school graduates go on to college or university.

A senior school leaver's certificate, in fact, is the absolute minimum for any sort of clerical work

A special effort is made to help families change schools when the father has received a company transfer. But Education Ministry officials admit there are surprisingly few takers even though there are vacancies in many high schools.

The children themselves are often reluctant to move, because a tight-knit group-feeling quickly develops at high school which to a large extent governs lifetime loyalties, and it is extremely hard for a midterm newcomer to gain ready acceptance.

But far more important is the conception, whether true or not, that the quality among schools differs significantly.

There is frantic competition -- now often beginning before kindergarten -- to enter schools that have a good reputation in the public mind as a springboard to one of the handful of prestigious colleges that major companies still favor in their recruitment drives.

Each primary, junior, and senior high school (and even some kindergartens) has an unofficial ranking derived from past victories in the entrance examination war.

The idea of the ranking system is particularly encouraged by fee-paying schools, and even more so by profit-oriented prep schools that thrive on the demand of parents that their offspring be given an extra bit of "edge" to beat the competition for the limited number of places in the "right" schools.

The education of their children has always been a concern of diplomats and businessmen posted overseas. They feel that removing a student from the Japanese educational mainstream can prove extremely detrimental to the child's future business career. (A separate school system recently sprang up to help overseas students readjust on their return to Japan. See related story on page B-14.)

This has become an issue in domestic employment transfers only in the past few years. It has now, however, become customary for company employees in their 40s with children at junior or senior high schools to go to the new postings alone, for four to five years in some cases.

Some companies have bowed to the trend by building "bachelor" dormitories for such staff or paying them a special "family severance" allowance.

Some wives try to make frequent visits to do father's laundry and check on his welfare, and the whole family may come to visit during the school holidays. But it is a poor substitute, as Yoichi Kato is the first to admit.

"Obviously, I can't refuse this promotion just because it means a transfer to another city. My whole career would be damaged if I refused to go where my company wished to send me.

"I discussed the problem for a long time with my family and we decided that there was no lternative but for me to go alone. My eldest boy is now at a critical stage in his education, and my wife felt there wasn't a school of sufficiently good quality in the town where I am going.

"Naturally, I will miss my family. But this is the only way to satisfy my obligation to them and to my company."

An Education Ministry official admitted that the family-breakup problem is a worrisome trend, but did not see there was much the government could do in the short term.

"We have been striving with all our energy to lessen the impact of entrance examinations and also to ensure a leveling up of the quality of schools nationwide. But it is hard to educate parents who are obsessed with this schools ranking system."

A recent newspaper editorial agreed that part of the solution lay in the home. It noted:

"The family is the basic unit of society. All members of the family should live together. After all, a child grows by learning vrom both its parents, and in this respect the home is of vital importance in the whole education process.

"Therefore," the editorial concluded, "the absence of fathers for several years merely for the sake of the children's education is absurd."