The View from Japan
Torii gate



Why They Go it Alone

By Tim Young

From SIF SATELLITE 46, Spring 1997

One of my students left our English school last year when his employer posted him to another part of Japan. "I'll live there by myself," he told me. "My wife and children will stay here in Hachioji."

 two bullet trains
The high-speed "bullet train, called the Hikari, or light beam, in Japanese. Some Japanese men live so far from their jobs that they use the bullet train to get to work every day!

This is a common enough phenomenon in Japan that I didn't need to ask the reasons. I knew that his family had recently moved into a new house. Land prices being what they are in Japan (especially in the city), once you've got a house built, you do not give it up. My student told me he would visit his family on weekends and holidays, and hope that, when his time at the new post was up in two years, he would be sent back to the main office in Tokyo.

In modern-day Japan, fathers who are transferred to another city-or even another country-commonly go alone to their new post and leave their families behind, a situation called tanshin funin. They are most commonly middle-aged men who have bought houses and have kids in school. Since many junior highs and high schools require rigorous examinations to enter, children are reluctant to be pulled out of school and have to start all over again in another city. I would almost go so far as to say this is unheard of, especially at the high school and university levels.

Some students have asked me, "How do you say tanshin funin in English?" Not an easy question. A language reflects the society in which it is used, and special terms will be coined for situations that are common in that society. Tanshin funin is common in Japan because societal conditions demand it, but in the States land prices are low and transferring from one school, or even one university, to another is commonplace. After pointing this out, however, I go on to tell my students about an American term that describes a couple living separately: a commuter marriage.

Unlike families separated by tanshin funin, couples in commuter marriages are commonly childless. House ownership is seldom a factor. Such couples are separated because they both have jobs that are located in separate cities, and so they must commute between cities in order to see each other.

This situation is as foreign to Japanese as tanshin funin is to Americans, because few Japanese women take their careers as seriously as many American women do. Those Japanese women who don't quit their jobs upon marriage will likely do so when they have their first child. However, this is gradually changing; eventually, womens' careers may become another factor leading to tanshin funin.

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Copyright 2003 This page last updated November 1, 2002 . E-mail Tim