Tanshin-funin (assignment away from home)

By Ichiro Suzuki In early June, two months into Japan’s baseball season, Justin Smoak, first baseman for the Yomiuri Giants, had announced abruptly that he was leaving the club and then return to the United States to be reunited with his family. He arrived in Japan by himself early in the year and was waiting for his family to join him in Tokyo. As it turned out, the pandemic got his family into some difficulty of obtaining visas to stay in Japan throughout the summer. In response to this situation, he has chosen to go home quitting a lucrative job with the Giants, rather than keeping playing without a family for another five months. Though disappointed, fans overwhelmingly supported his decision to return to the U.S. Many of them thought “That’s the way it should be.” In the third decade of the 21st century, Japanese society is beginning to understand what a family is. Corporate Japan has been notorious about sacrificing employees’ lives for the sake of growth of its business. One of its infamous practices is sending its employee to a different location far away from where he (yes he, not she) and the family has heretofore lived. While he is given a choice of bringing the family to his new city or country, many men choose to leave the family behind for reasons such as children’s education or caring of aged parents. The company’s Human Resources dept. makes such requests to move often without prior consultations and that could be a total shock to him. Even worse, he is told to report to his new boss in a new city within the next few days, sometimes the next day. Such an assignment away from home is called “tanshin-funin”. If fact, it might have been one of the factors of Corporate Japan’s success, until it no longer was in the 1990s. Continuous reshuffling of people has kept the air in the office fresh, so it was believed. This is the Japan that drove the country to an era of super normal economic growth that became an envy of the world. Everything is for the sake of the company’s bright future, with costs singlehandedly burdened on the part of employees. As a small compensation from the company, employees on tanshin-funin were often paid round-trip transportations fares between his new city and where the rest of the family lives, often two round trip expenses so that he can spend a weekend or two with his wife and kids. At last, this long lasting personnel practice is being reconsidered, though it doesn’t seem to be going away at once. At the very least, Corporate Japan is beginning to embrace a recently popular buzzword of ‘work-life balance’. At large corporations, HR periodically asks employees about their satisfaction with the job they have, about their career plans or personal issues that they might want HR to be aware of. It appears to be becoming less common that one shows up in the office in the morning to be told to go to his new city and finds himself there the next day. Nonetheless, large sales organization always need an able branch manager in every city that has the prefecture’s government. They have to send someone to keep the business going and a new branch manager may or may not be happy about where he is. Justin Smoak has decided to leave the Giants and Japan, having found how invaluable to be with his family. On the other hand, he afforded to make this decision. He was a solid major leaguer for 11 seasons hitting 196 home runs. He must be financially sound to be able to quit a well-paying job with the Giants, with not a small chance of finding a reasonably good job back in the U.S. again. This is a decision that not all ball players afford to make. In fact, many former minor leaguers are playing baseball on a tanshin-funin basis, especially this season, leaving their families back in the U.S. Baseball players or else, it is always essential to keep one’s skill appealing to someone else so that one does not have to be at the mercy of the current employers. Under the persisting system of lifetime employment at Corporate Japan, too many people have turned themselves into ‘company slaves’. They cannot be let go as long as they don’t break laws or make serious compliance breaches. To those people who cling to their jobs, whether they like it or not, the only thing they offer is their allegiance to the company. Accepting tanshin-funin can be considered as a little price employees pay to hold onto a relatively safe job. However, these people may have little to offer to the world outside the company. Keeping low-skilled employees on a payroll is not the best use of resources either for the employees or the broader economy. This rigid employment practice is one of the reasons behind Corporate Japan’s loss of competitiveness in the age of globalization that began in the 1990s. Nonetheless, changes are coming only slowly despite obvious drawbacks of this practice. About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.