Out of Japan: Recession helps the salaryman find his family values

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Tokyo - My friend Hiroshi Sato does not mind being a stereotypical Japanese salaryman. He has heard all the jokes. He knows that his counterparts in the United States or Europe would have had it much easier. But this is Japan, he says stoically, so 'shyoganai' ('there is nothing to be done').

It has been tough over the past 18 years, he says, putting in all the overtime, going to his office at weekends, drinking after work with his boss and listening to his boring stories, only to rise early next morning with yet another hangover to be treated with vitamin-nicotine-caffeine pick-me-up drinks. The hours he has kept have not given him much time with his family, and he has not had a holiday of more than a few days in the past five years.

But it was all worth it. He has just bought his first house - at the age of 39, with two children and a wife who works part-time in the local chemist. The house cost 60 million yen ( pounds 375,000) - a moderate price in Japan for the simple two- storey, three-bedroom house with a tiny strip of garden. But if ever there were a man with a sense of accomplishment in his life, it is Sato-san.

He came from a relatively poor family in Tokyo, who struggled to bring up their son and daughter in the Fifties and Sixties. His father was a fireman, and his mother used to do piece-work in a factory until an accident with a machine made her lose her arm.

They pushed him through school, and although he was not able to go to university, he began working for a television station in the capital in 1976. Ten years ago he was transferred to one of the station's local affiliates in Sendai in northern Japan. He thinks his not having gone to university meant he had no future in the Tokyo head office.

In many ways, Sato has been working all his life to make up for two things: his lack of university education, which he is determined to reverse with his own two sons, and the inability of his own parents ever to buy their own house, which he would have inherited as the first son. Now, after saving for years, he has bought his house - although with his salary of pounds 45,000 he will be paying the mortgage for most of the rest of his working life. And he is paying for his older son to attend a private primary school, getting him on track early for a prestigious secondary school which in turn should help to get him a place in a good university.

Sato is not a bad father. The caricature of a Japanese salaryman suggests someone who cares only for his company, and has little or no emotional involvement with his family at home. But Sato has pictures of his sons on his desk, plays with them in their nightly bath if he is home in time, and tries to keep at least Sunday evening free for the entire family to share a steaming bowl of nabe stew or sukiyaki grilled meat. He helps the older boy with his homework, and kisses away the traumas of the younger boy's falls and misadventures. In fact, Sato wants to be a normal father, and resents the time he spends in the office. He is not consumed with the patriotic economic imperative of his parents' generation. But, as he says, this is Japan - 'shyoganai'.

I thought of Sato when a survey on men's way of life appeared, conducted by the Prime Minister's office at the end of last year. According to the survey, 75 per cent of women think that men have become more family-oriented in the past 10 years. But this change has started from a very low base: over 90 per cent of women said men still need to play a larger role in caring for their children.

Economic recession, however, may be playing into the hands of Sato and the other would-be family men. Overtime has been cut back, company 'working weekend holidays' have been curtailed, and men have more time on their hands. The Education Ministry has sponsored seminars for corporate warriors teaching them how to become family men. Television advertising has picked up on the trend: an advertisement for cooking by gas has the housewife looking up with surprise and saying 'What? Home already?' to her husband as he comes home at 8pm.

Sato's boss no longer has the big expense account to take his section workers out for the drinking sessions as he did in the past. So salaryman Sato is leaving the office earlier - to go back to the new home that he owns.