Some Japanese workers opting for family life over corporate glory

Not every Japanese male is an incorrigible workaholic. And men who would prefer to put family before group or company loyalty have begun to win some recognition. A major clothing store chain, Nagasakiya, has created a system allowing some of its management-caliber staff to avoid the inevitable transfers that are part of winning in the corporate rat race.

But those who wish to stay in one location will have to pay the price in slower promotion and lower annual pay increases than their more "dedicated" colleagues.

It is a small breakthrough, but it is revolutionary in Japan's tradition-bound business world, which stresses group loyalty and obedience to the company's wishes above all else. Refusing a transfer, in fact, has long been considered virtually taboo.

Nagasakiya, with almost 100 stores nationwide, routinely transferred supervisory staff every two or three years until it ran into strong worker resistance.

The damage to family life and education were key factors. Children are involved in a highly competitive struggle to get into certain "good" schools leading inexorably from kindergarten to university and offering a passport to secure jobs with major corporations.

Once their children are in good schools, parents are reluctant to move to another district. As a result, there is a tendency these days for married men to go off to new job assignments alone.

Workaholism has a dark side. The National Police Agency reports 340 executives committed suicide last year because they couldn't cope with job pressures.

"People these days have different life styles, different values," concedes Nagasakiya's personnel manager, Masahiro Ninomiya. "For some, the main goal is getting ahead in the corporation. For others it is a happy family life. We have to meet changing social trends."

Under company regulations, employees wishing to avoid transfers must register with the company, citing reasons such as children's education or housing problems.

Only 180 out of the total work force of about 5,000 will be able to qualify to stay put. In return they will have to accept that they will never advance beyond the level of deputy store manager.

"Obviously, store managers and other senior executives must be willing to go anywhere under company orders," says Mr. Ninomiya.

There has been no rush to sign up since the program went into force June 1. But an official of the company union, which spent three years negotiating the concession, explained: "People see no reason to volunteer for slower promotion or less pay until faced with an immediate transfer.

"But most of our members are happy with the new system . . . mainly because you no longer have to feel guilty or disloyal about refusing a transfer."

Other companies are watching the experiment closely because of similar problems with workers complaining of being turned into "rootless nomads."

Many Japanese and foreign observers feel the very fact such changes are being considered indicates the famed Japanese work ethic is beginning to slip.

Opinion polls reveal more and more people want to enjoy the fruits of Japan's current affluence -- earned by the past sweat of the labor force. And many younger workers prefer to be good husbands and fathers rather than simply faceless company men.

A senior executive of the Sony Corporation laments: "These days our younger staff are out of the door on the dot of five." Other companies echo his complaint.

But one Nagasakiya employee in his mid-20s replies: "I don't want to be like my father -- married to his job and a virtual stran ger at home."

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