It seems like only last week I was writing about two contradictory trends in Japanese culture. The country’s politicians frequently call for families to have more children. And yet, many in Japan say it’s not a friendly place to raise kids.
Actually, it was just last week. In my post about the perennial baby stroller war.
And yet in that short time, another online firestorm has erupted that calls into question whether Japan provides a hospitable environment for parents.
Transfers: A Form of Paternity Harassment?
A not uncommon fact of Japanese business life is the mandatory office transfer, in which workers are told by their companies that they need to pack up and work from another office, either in Japan or (occasionally) overseas. Legally, if the company’s regulations stipulate that transfers may be part of normal work life, employees have no grounds to refuse such transfers: it’s either obey or be fired .
Such transfers leave many Japanese workers with a stark choice. Does the entire family move? Or does the transferee move for a few years, and leave his or her family behind? The latter situation is common and is known in Japanese as tanshin funin (単身赴任). Based on census statistics, it’s estimated that 2% of the Japanese working population – mostly men – are living apart from their families.
In an article published late last year in Toyo Keizai, author Tamaiko Yasuko looked at one family who had been presented this choice. Uchida Kenya was reassigned by his company from his office in Sapporo, where the Uchida family lives, to Asahikawa, which lies about 2 and a half hours to the northeast of Sapporo. Kenya’s wife, Azusa, also works, and the parents decided it was best for the kids for them and Azusa to remain in Sapporo while Kenya reported for duty in Asahikawa. The family communicates by Skype every night, and Kenya drives home every weekend. 
Tamaiko’s article documents the impact of the transfer on the kids – particularly On Ikumu (8), who went through a “stages of grief” process dealing with his father’s sudden re-assignment. Ikumu drew characters to reflect his emotions – first “Surprise-kun,” which morphed into “Anger-kun,” and which, finally, became “Sadness-kun.” (“Sadness-kun,” he explained in Pokemon-esque terms, “is the evolution of Anger-kun.”)
But what I found most striking about the article was the effect this situation had on Azusa, who now shoulders the responsibility of caring for the couple’s children, Ikumu and Ichino (6), while also working full time.
…Ikumu also pointed out how his mom has been aggravated by the stress and burden of raising kids while working: “Mom’s nothing but angry since dad’s not here. She wasn’t angry when she lived together with dad.” “When Ikumu said that, it was a shock – and a realization. It forced me to think about how true that was. He’s looking out for me,” said Azusa.
As I’ve written before, many mothers in Japan are fighting back against the unfair burden of housework and child-rearing placed on them. As husbands are called upon to do more, and with 70% of Japanese married women working, the custom of one spouse working away from home is appearing increasingly dated.
Reassigned Right After Parental Leave
Unfortunately, no one told this to a certain company in Japan. In a tweet that has since been re-tweeted almost 40,000 times as of this writing, user papico2016 relates what the company did to her husband just as he returned from paternity leave. (Note: Original tweet no longer exists – replaced with screenshot.)
Our new determination. My husband, who works for a stock market listed Japanese company, was told unofficially on his second day back that he’d be transferred to Kansai [the area containing Osaka], just as I was two weeks from returning to work, just as we’d gotten our two year old and newborn’s day care enrollments transferred and completed, 10 days after we moved into our new home. He haggled with them, but he’s since resigned without taking the remainder of his vacation, and from today onward he’s a stay at home dad. He’ll support our family just four months after I’ve given birth.
First off, kudos to this husband and dad for doing right by his family. As of 2010, only about 22,000 Japanese men listed their occupation as “househusband.” For men, staying home with ones’ kids is still a minority choice in a nation where most men view working as a man’s “proper” societal role.
Careful readers will notice that papico2016 didn’t name the company in question…at first. When asked by another user to name the company, she replied, “Since we don’t owe them anything…”, and very cleverly hash-tagged their slogan, “The company that fulfills wishes through chemistry” (カガクでネガイをカナエル会社). This outed the company as Kaneka , a chemical manufacturer based in Osaka whose English slogan is “The Dreamology Company” – and established #カガクでネガイをカナエル会社 as a trending hashtag on Twitter.
The ensuing Twitter storm largely criticizes Kaneka. The company, it seemed, contradicted its own stated values. Ryosuke Kamba of BuzzFeed Japan wrote a story in which he noted that Kaneka had (emphasis on the past tense here) a page on its site dedicated to “Work Life Balance,” in which it claimed:
Our company promotes a policy of enabling employees to engage in robust work with peace of mind, work more autonomously and with flexibility, and balance work and life. In 2009 we earned the Kuramin Mark, which is bestowed upon companies who are certified to support working parents. We have a plan of action based in the Law in Advancing a Strategy to Support Raising the Next Generation, and are continuing our efforts to surpass our benchmarks.
However, shortly after Twitter users and journalists found this page, it disappeared from the Internet. Pressed to account for its actions, Kaneka declined to offer any comment on papico2016’s tweet .
Kamba interviewed papico2016, who said the reaction shocked her. Papico2016 says she never intended to go after Kaneka. She merely wanted to rally support for the family’s decision from among her friends and followers. She had been tweeting about the issue back to June, but it only took off when she hash-tagged the thread.
Apparently, this entire situation is not uncommon. In fact, it’s pretty much standard business practice. Many Japanese people in the original thread related similar stories of clear paternity harassment. In an English Twitter thread shared by management consultant Rochelle Kopp, Japanese residents shared similar stories:
This is apparently a common pattern among what one Japanese Twitter user called “dinosaur” companies. These older companies use such tactics as a way of controlling workers. Reminding them who’s boss. In this case, many are alleging it amounts to “pata-hara” (パタハラ), or paternity harassment. More companies are offering family leave for both mothers and fathers. However, many still actively discourage their workers from taking it. Those who do take it are sometimes punished for their decision – as seems to be the case in this instance.
It seems that this time, however, the “traditional” way of doing business triggered something in people’s psyches. The result was a wicked backlash. Japan is currently abuzz with talk of work reform. As a result, the Japanese public appears increasingly sensitive to companies that engage in paternity harassment and similar pressure tactics.
 人事異動や転勤の命令は拒否できる？正しい知識を身につけて適切に対処しよう. https://tech-camp.in/note/careerchange/40760/.
 8歳児｢パパの単身赴任｣に本音を語った瞬間. https://toyokeizai.net/articles/-/256039
 Kaneka. http://www.kaneka.co.jp/en/
 夫の育休直後に転勤命令「信じられない」妻が告発 カネカ「コメントは差し控えたい」. https://www.buzzfeed.com/jp/ryosukekamba/ikukyu