Out of Japan: Company move makes a family fall to pieces

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TOKYO - This is the story of a family breakdown in Japan. It is a commonplace tragedy, with no extraordinary causes. In some ways it was predictable. But it has happened to a family I have stayed with and got to know over the past two years. It has been sad to watch from the sidelines as four people drifted apart and became estranged in Japan's urban landscape.

The Suzuki family lived in a quiet suburb in a medium-sized city three hours out of Tokyo. The husband, Satoru, worked for a building company and married Keiko, who was then 21, in 1972. He was 25, had a good job and, although Keiko was not sure about the marriage, her parents pressed her to accept what they thought was a good match.

It started well, and within a year Keiko was pregnant with her first son, Hiroshi. Two years later Shoichi, their second son, was born. The growing boys cemented the family together, and Keiko says the first 10 years of her marriage were the happiest in her life.

Then something characteristically Japanese intervened. Satoru's company informed him that business was slackening in his area. They wanted to transfer him to another town, five hours away by train, but the company would not pay relocation expenses.

Satoru and Keiko feared it would be hard for their children to be accepted in a new school, and property prices near his new place of work were so high that he could not afford to buy a house.

His company was pushing him into tanshin funin, the phenomenon of a married man having to live on his own for his work. It is increasingly common, just one of the costs of Japan's low unemployment.

Satoru tried hard at first, getting late-night trains to spend weekends with his family, telephoning often. But sometimes he had to work on Saturdays, making weekend trips difficult. Gradually the inevitable happened: Satoru took up with a girlfriend close to his work.

However, he was scrupulous in sending money for the boys' upbringing, and both he and Keiko were determined that the two should go to university and get good jobs so they would not be pushed around in mid-career. Keiko devoted herself to the boys. In the evenings she would sit alone in the kitchen smoking and drinking.

The boys seemed to adapt well to their father's absence, but Keiko noticed that the older boy, Hiroshi, was paying more attention to his girlfriend and less to his studies as he approached juken jigoku (examination hell), the last two years of school when pupils attend cram schools and study late into the night to pass the university entrance exams. He failed the exams and spent the next year sleeping late, going to parties and arguing with his girlfriend.

Keiko gradually transferred her hopes on to Shoichi, the more intelligent of the two boys. He was studying hard. But something was happening to him too. He would sit in his room for hours sometimes, playing his electric guitar through an amplifier into his headphones, totally cut off.

Earlier this year Shoichi suddenly disappeared. Keiko later discovered that his girlfriend had been assaulted on a beach by some men while he was not around. He snapped, and now spends most of his time sleeping in friends' houses and driving fast cars. The police have warned Keiko that her son is not keeping good company. But he rarely comes home and when he does he is sullen and unresponsive. The school has given up any hope of his sitting his university entrance exams.

The elder brother, Hiroshi, has moved out, too, and now works in a convenience store to pay his way. Keiko lives on her own and drinks perhaps more wine than before, turning the television volume up high at night.