Japan's big job shuffles swell `bachelor' ranks

March and April are months of manager-shuffling in Japan. But a complete transfer of home and family can derail the progress of salaried men here, so Japan's unique permanent employment system has produced another unique byproduct, tanshinfuninsha, or ``business bachelors.''

A business bachelor is a company employee who lives by himself in his newly assigned location, leaving his wife and family behind. Most of these men are in their 40s and 50s. According to the Ministry of Labor, more than 18,400 business bachelors were working for companies with more than 1,000 employees in 1984. The figure jumps to some 150,000 if employees working for medium-sized and small enterprises are included.

New businesses aimed at these ``bachelors,'' such as furniture leasing and condominiums with hotel-type services, are booming. A housekeeping service agency was established by a woman in Hiroshima recently and has been very successful.

Despite the hardships, the men have been willing to remain ``bachelors'' to provide a better education for their children and because of housing problems. Other men cited special family situations as a reason for staying on their own.

Entrance exams for senior high schools and universities are extremely important here. Transferring a child to another school can be a disadvantage to getting him or her into good schools and universities. And in some areas it can be difficult to find a public school to accept a student from another school.

Also, having one's own house is a lifetime dream for most salaried men. So those who own their houses don't want to move. In a Japanese family, a wife usually takes care of her husband's aged parents, especially when she lives with them. This makes it even more difficult for her to follow her husband.

Still, the transfer is essential for promotion in Japan. One bank official was transferred 10 times, including a long stint as a business bachelor, before his retirement.

In most cases, a transfer has to be made on short notice. The Ministry of Labor found that 22 percent of the transfers were made with less than one month's notice, while 26 percent were made with just over a month's notice.

One government official who is now a business bachelor in Sapporo, the largest city on the island of Hokkaido, previously spent two years on his own in Thailand. He says it is just as hard overseas as it is in Japan. What he cares about most is ``a delicate negative effect'' on his 15-year-old son due to his absence.

Most business bachelors face a more realistic inconvenience -- how to deal with household affairs. Now they have to overcome their embarrassment at washing clothes and buying groceries at the supermarket.

To make things worse, a recent transfer does not always mean a step toward promotion. Under the permanent employment system, chances for promotion have been reduced as Japan's average life expectancy has improved, and baby-boomers have increased the competition for middle-management positions.

Meanwhile, business bachelors are developing their own self-support systems. There are 4,000 to 5,000 business bachelors in Fukuoka, a city in Japan's southern island Kyushu, making the city a ``champion of business bachelors'' along with Sapporo. The central civic center of Fukuoka has started a counseling program for these executives.

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