TÖKYÖ — For 20 to 30 minutes every morning, Tokiko Nakayama speaks with her two sons, ages 6 and 3, via computer from her company apartment in Kyöto before leaving for work. The 36-year-old Nakayama is among a growing number of female company employees who are working away from their families. In 2001, Nakayama was hired by a major beverage maker in Tökyö that saw career-track potential in her. Last April, they assigned the Tökyö wife and mother to work at their operation in Kyöto.
Nakayama said she struggled with the decision to leave her sons in the care of her husband, who is 40. Working away from home is “nothing special for men,” she said. However, Nakayama said she wants to “earn my wings while I am young.” Her husband, who works for the same company, supported her decision, as he may be in the same situation in the future.
With the company’s flex-time system, Nakayama leaves her office at 3:30 p.m. every Friday and takes a Shinkansen bullet train to Tökyö. From Tökyö Station, she heads directly to a daycare center, where she picks up her sons and takes them home. The four spend the weekend together as a family.
On Monday morning, she is on the first Shinkansen back to Kyöto and another week of work. “As the boys initially cried a lot before I left them, I felt really sorry for them,” she said.
Her husband takes the boys to the daycare center on weekday mornings and picks them up after work. He is so busy caring for them and tending to household chores that he often refuses to work overtime. Their lives could change greatly when the older son begins attending elementary school this month.
Although concerned about possible changes, Nakayama said she wants to produce work results that are worthy of the sacrifice she and her family are making while deepening understanding with her husband and children.
But the Nakayamas are part of a growing trend in Japan. According to a survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 194,400 female workers were living apart from their husbands in 2012, up from 118,500 in 2002. Although most of the cases involved husbands who were transferred to new locales without their families, the number of wives accepting assignments away from their home is believed to be on the rise.
Job transfers are a common practice in Japan because companies hire workers assuming they will be lifetime employees and without determining their future work in advance. Some workers opt for unaccompanied transfers, especially if they have young children who are still in school or are concerned about payment of their mortgage loans.
In the past, wives generally stayed home and took charge of running the household. But as the number of women who continue working outside the home after marrying has increased, there have been more cases of jobsite transfers without the family, resulting in a heavy burden for the family members left behind.
More and more companies are seeking to address these family concerns. For instance, a group of 64 regional banks plans to launch a personnel information-sharing program so that when employees’ spouses are assigned positions away from their residence, the employee can transfer to a local bank in the same destination.
Cosmetics maker Shiseido Co. currently allows its employees to take a leave of absence for up to three years for their spouse’s overseas assignments.
Job transfers are more challenging, however, for spouses caring for elderly family members, which are increasing these days.
Makiko Otsuka, a consultant at Work Life Balance Co., which advises client firms on how to help employees balance work and their personal life, said Japan Inc. needs “a new mechanism to locally secure competent workers without relying on transferees.” — by Sawako Obara