You are on page 1of 2

TOKYO (March 19, 2000) - The husband comes home late, tipsy after obligatory drinks with the

boss, and goes to bed. The wife's days are occupied with the home, the children, with hobbies he's scarcely aware of. Years pass. After the kids have gone and retirement nears, the couple faces the future and sees no shared dreams - except those of a life apart. Like crime rates, having a lower incidence of divorce than the United States and other Western nations has long been seen by the Japanese as an example of their country's social stability - and harmony. But a sharp increase in divorce among older Japanese is shaking that belief - and experts are concerned it may be evidence of the social costs of the decades of single-minded devotion to work that made Japan's postwar economic miracle possible. "Elderly couples are reaching retirement age without ever once having had a real conversation," said Nobuo Kurokawa, a doctor who specializes in marriage-related stress. "Spending time together becomes a huge burden." Between 1973 and 1997, the number of divorces per year among couples married for more than 30 years jumped more than eightfold - from 820 to 6,709, the Health Ministry says. The overall number of divorces for the same period doubled from 111,877 to 225,635. Japanese are still less likely to get divorced than Americans. Nearly half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, compared to about a third in Japan. Experts are alarmed, however, because the divorce rate is rising faster for older couples than for any other group. "In cases where the husband is the breadwinner and the woman stays at home, the likelihood of divorce at an advanced age is very high," said Hiromi Ikeuchi, a marriage counselor. Retirement forces many of Japan's elderly couples into the unknown territory of filling the hours of a day in one another's company. Kurokawa has even coined a term for it: Husband-at-home-stress syndrome. "The wives start developing nervous disorders and exhibiting all sorts of psychosomatic physical symptoms," he said. "Many even think of suicide." Centuries-old rules about the roles of men and women persisted for the sake of national reconstruction after World War II until prosperity intervened, transforming society's values. But that message didn't get across to many of Japan's aging and bewildered "salarymen," as white-collar workers are known. "Japanese men can't stand on their own feet," said 63-year-old housewife Yasuko Seino, who is married to a former company executive. "When my husband was late for work, I even had to put his socks on for him. "After he retired, he expected me to continue doing all of the

housework," she added. "But I'm not a secretary; we're supposed to be partners." The tradition of one of the children, usually the eldest son, caring for the parents in old age is becoming anathema to Japan's younger generations. Left to themselves, many elderly couples become lonelier together than they ever were when they spent the greater part of the day apart. The dilemma is highlighted by the response Ikeuchi usually gets when she asks a woman what kind of person her husband is. "Their immediate reaction is to give his job title or his height. But when I ask what his interests are or what preoccupies him, they draw a complete blank," Ikeuchi said. Women initiate most divorces among elderly couples, but men are increasingly finding they want to pack it in after decades of married life. In a society where the man's province has traditionally been the workplace, and the woman's domain the home, husbands often retire to find themselves dominated in every aspect of their life. The relatively high proportion of divorces among the elderly in Japan is also related to what remains one of Japan's most cherished values: "Gaman" - or just gritting it out. "One of the particularities of divorce in Japan is that many couples just put up with each other until their kids grow up," said Kurokawa. And he believes there are far more failed marriages among Japan's elderly than the divorce numbers reveal. By the time they have fulfilled their obligations and feel free to divorce, many seniors simply don't have the energy to go through with it, he said. Kurokawa has compiled a checklist for elderly couples, and the questions are blunt: Does your wife seem depressed when you are at home? Is your husband the type who doesn't listen? More and more elderly couples are seeking counseling to salvage their marriages, something that would have been unheard of a few decades ago. Some find common interests or hobbies and learn to communicate. Seino, for example, recently persuaded her husband to share some of the housework and take English lessons with her. But for many, it's too late to make a fresh start. "It is very difficult for people in that situation to change," Kurokawa said.