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Japan does Marriage Triage after Divorce law update takes hold.

November 28, 2007

 NEW DIVORCE LAWS BRINGS MARRIAGE TRIAGE TO JAPAN
[This article was front page on Washington Post with photos….]

Learn to Be Nice to Your Wife, or Pay the Price
Japan’s Salarymen, With Pensions At Stake, Work on Their Marriages

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
November 26, 2007

FUKUOKA, Japan — Salarymen — the black-suited corporate warriors who work
long hours, spend long evenings drinking with cronies and stumble home late
to long-suffering wives — have danger waiting for them as they near
retirement.

Divorce. A change in Japanese law this year allows a wife who is filing for
divorce to claim as much as half her husband’s company pension. When the new
law went into effect in April, divorce filings across Japan spiked 6.1
percent. Many more split-ups are in the pipeline, marriage counselors
predict. They say wives — hearts gone cold after decades of marital neglect
— are using calculators to ponder pension tables, the new law and the big D (i.e. divorce).

Skittishly aware of the trouble they’re in, 18 salarymen, many of them
nearing retirement, gathered at a restaurant here recently for beer, boiled
pork and marital triage.

The evening began with a defiantly defeatist toast. Husbands reminded
themselves of what their organization — the improbably named National
Chauvinistic Husbands Association — preaches as a sound strategy for
arguing with one’s wife.

“I can’t win. I won’t win. I don’t want to win,” they bellowed in unison,
before tippling from tall schooners of draft beer.

The pork was scrumptious and the mood jolly, but throughout the dinner
meeting there was an undertow of not-too-distant domestic disaster.

“The fact that a wife can now get 50 percent has ignited guys to think about
their fragile marriages,” said Shuichi Amano, 55, founder of the association
and a magazine publisher in this city of 1.3 million in western Japan. The
word chauvinist in the group’s name, Amano says, is not intended to refer to
bossy men. Instead, it invokes the original meaning of the Japanese word
that today translates as chauvinist, kanpaku, a top assistant to the
emperor.

Men near the end of their corporate lives, he said, are especially edgy. “To
be divorced is the equivalent of being declared dead — because we can’t
take care of ourselves,” Amano said.

When his wife told him eight years ago that she was “99 percent” certain she
was going to dump him, Amano said, the only things he then knew how to do in
the kitchen were to fry eggs and pour boiled water over noodles.

Since then, in addition to learning how to listen and talk to a wife he had
ignored for two decades, Amano said, he has learned how to take out the
trash, clean the house and cook.

Marriage in Japan is going through an increasingly rough patch. As in the
United States and most wealthy industrialized countries, the age of first
marriage is being pushed back in Japan. Between 1962 and 2006, the average
age at which a woman married for the first time slid from 24 to 28.

But for well-educated (and presumably well-informed) young women in Japan,
marriage is fast becoming a sociological rarity.

In 1980, about three-quarters of Japan’s college-educated women were married
by age 29. Now, seven out of 10 are single at that age. In the past 20
years, the percentage of women in this elite demographic category who do not
want to marry at all has almost doubled — to about 29 percent.

This wariness is a rational response to the isolation and drudgery of being
a wife in Japan, according to Hiromi Ikeuchi, a family counselor with the
Tokyo Family Laboratory. “I don’t think it is the fault of men,” she said.
“It is the corporate culture that expects men to work late.”

Japan’s divorce rate had been rising steadily for decades. Then, in 2003,
the law was passed granting a divorcing wife the right to as much as half of
her husband’s pension. But the pension provision did not go into effect
until this April.

“Hundreds of thousands of women were waiting,” said Ikeuchi, who added that
since April about 95 percent of divorce applications have come from women
who apparently were done waiting. “Unfortunately, I think the divorce rate
is going to go up.”

She said the situation is particularly worrisome for married men nearing
retirement — men who are soon to return full time to the bosom of families
they have financially supported but emotionally ignored.

“This husband who comes back is an alien,” Ikeuchi said. “For a wife to
accept this alien is going to be very, very difficult.”

While many experts agree that there is a marriage crisis brewing in
Japanese, the response of men has been tepid.

The National Chauvinist Husbands Association has been widely covered in the
Japanese news media in the past five years. But it has recruited just 4,300
members in a country of about 60 million men. Most married men in Japan are
simply not paying attention, Ikeuchi said. “They think their wives will take
care of them, like they took care of the children,” she said. “They have no
conception if their wife is happy.”

The husbands association ranks its members on a scale of 1 to 10.

A “1” is a well-meaning but clueless guy who has done little more than show
up at a group meeting.

A “10” is a husband who has reached a Zen-like state of being able to show
his wife through his daily behavior that he truly loves her — and even
manages to spit out the words “I love you.” It is not common in Japanese
culture for men or women to say those words, even in happy marriages,
according to marriage counselors.

So far, the husbands association has unearthed only one “10.”

He is Yoshimichi Itahashi, 66, president of a concrete company here in
Fukuoka. He has been married for 38 years and has two daughters and a son.

For almost all of that time, he behaved coldly and selfishly toward his wife
and children.

“I think my generation especially has grown up in a very feudalistic era,”
he said. “I never said I was sorry. When I came home from work, I would say
I want to eat dinner, I want a bath and I want to go to bed. I had no time
to talk to my wife.”

Before the beer and pork supper, Itahashi invited his wife, Hisano, to
explain some of the details of his misbehavior.

“He didn’t exist in the family,” she said. “It was almost like a family of
mother and children, like there was no father. Not only was he not there, I
couldn’t get in touch with him at all.”

Itahashi joined the husbands association five years ago, but kept it a
secret from his wife for a year, as he quietly taught himself to pay more
attention to her and the now-grown children. He said the 2003 divorce law
helped focus his mind and see domestic relations in Japan for what he now
believes they are — a volatile mess.

“Japan is a peaceful country, but the household is at war,” he said.

Two years ago, Itahashi did something new — he bought his wife a birthday
present.

“Up until my 60th birthday, he had not given me anything at all,” she said.
“But on my 60th, he sent me 60 flowers.”

Hisano Itahashi said that she is heartened that her husband is trying to
make amends for the decades he ignored her. Still, she said, the war in her
household is not over and her husband has lots of work to do.

“There was only one time he said he loved me,” she said. “And that time, he
was standing behind me.”

Midway through dinner in Fukuoka, as beer flowed and men exchanged
marriage-preservation tips, the newest member of the association was sworn
in.

Motoharu Kitajima, 30, married over the summer. He runs a local beauty
college and said his work requires that he spend a lot of nights out
drinking with colleagues. He joined the association as a preventive measure,
he said, to help alert him to strains in his marriage.

He is going to try to leave boozy dinners early and get home, he declared.
Asked whether he has yet mastered the art of telling his wife that he loves
her, he replied: “I can say, ‘I love you,’ if I am drunk.”

Dinner broke up before any of the husbands got noticeably drunk.

As they filed out of the restaurant, Amano advised the husbands not to go to
a second drinking party. He said they should go home to their wives.

For photos and to post a comment, visit:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/25/AR2007112501
720.html?referrer=emailarticle

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