Sick of Their Husbands in Graying Japan

Retired banker Tomohisa Kotake, second from left, participates in a cooking class at a Men in the Kitchen support group meeting in western Tokyo.
Retired banker Tomohisa Kotake, second from left, participates in a cooking class at a Men in the Kitchen support group meeting in western Tokyo. (Photo Courtesy Of Men In The Kitchen)

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By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 17, 2005

TOKYO -- Sakura Terakawa, 63, describes her four decades of married life in a small urban apartment as a gradual transition from wife to mother to servant. Communication with her husband started with love letters and wooing words under pink cherry blossoms. It devolved over time, she said, into mostly demands for his evening meals and nitpicking over the quality of her housework.

So when he came home one afternoon three years ago, beaming, and announced he was ready to retire, Terakawa despaired.

" 'This is it,' I remember thinking. 'I am going to have to divorce him now,' " Terakawa recalled. "It was bad enough that I had to wait on him when he came home from work. But having him around the house all the time was more than I could possibly bear."

Concerned about her financial future if she divorced, Terakawa stuck with their marriage -- only to become one of an extraordinary number of elderly Japanese women stricken with a disorder that experts here have recently begun diagnosing as retired husband syndrome, or RHS.

Feeling chained to the tradition of older women remaining utterly dedicated to their husbands' well-being, Terakawa said, she devoted herself to her spouse. Retirement cut him off from his longtime office social network, leaving him virtually friendless and her with the strain of filling his empty time. Within a few weeks, she said, he was hardly leaving the house, watching television and reading the newspaper -- and barking orders at her. He often forbade her to go out with her friends. When he did let her go, Terakawa said, she had to prepare all his meals before leaving.

After several months, she developed stomach ulcers, her speech began to slur and rashes broke out around her eyes. When doctors discovered polyps in her throat but could find no medical reason for her sudden burst of ailments, she was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed stress-related RHS.

Terakawa began receiving therapy from Nobuo Kurokawa, a physician who is one of Japan's leading RHS experts. Kurokawa coined the term retired husband syndrome in a presentation to the Japanese Society of Psychosomatic Medicine in 1991, leading to its use in books, journals and mainstream media here. Confirming Terakawa's account in an interview, Kurokawa said he offered her the same advice he has given numerous other older women in the same position.

"Come to therapy," he said. "Then spend as much time as possible away from your husband."

In Japan, retirement has become a risky business for many wives, who are finding the stress of their husband's presence at home unendurable. Though after-retirement stress is a common problem in most developed countries as husbands and wives try to balance relationships in their twilight years, analysts say Japan has become extraordinary for myriad reasons -- including the fact that one-fifth of Japanese are now over 65, the highest percentage in the world.

Even as gender roles have changed for younger people here, with women entering the workforce in record numbers, older Japanese have remained far more rigid. As with most Japanese men of his generation, Terakawa's husband demanded strict obedience from her, she said, even while he spent his life almost entirely apart from her and their three children. He left home for the office just after dawn and stayed out late socializing after work. He even took most of his vacations with colleagues and clients. Those long absences, she said, made his presence around the house after retirement even more jolting.

"I had developed my own life, my own way of doing things, in the years when he was never home," Terakawa said. She said she cannot even stand to look at her husband across the dinner table now and sits at an angle so she can stare out a window instead.

Part of the problem is that the nature of Japanese family life has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The tradition of retired parents living with their married adult children is rapidly disappearing, with new generations remaining single well into their forties and modern young couples choosing greater privacy. As older couples are forced to spend more time alone together, the divorce rate among those married more than 20 years -- a group that includes most of Japan's married senior citizens -- is now the fastest-growing in the country, more than doubling to 41,958 divorces in 2000 compared with 20,435 cases in 1985, according to government statistics.


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