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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)

Kurokawa estimates that as many as 60 percent of the wives of retired men may suffer from some degree of RHS.

With a record number of Japanese men set to retire -- almost 7 million from 2007 to 2009 -- experts warn that the disorder has the potential to explode. The Japanese boast the longest lifespan on Earth, yet older Japanese men still cling to the outmoded idea of wives as servile attendants -- leaving many elderly women to view their longevity as more of a curse than a blessing. One survey from the Tokyo-based advertising firm Hakuhodo showed that while 85 percent of soon-to-retire husbands are delighted by the idea of retirement, 40 percent of their wives described themselves as "depressed" by the prospect.

Fear of husbands coming home to roost has become a hot topic in Japan. Bookstores are loaded with self-help titles for elderly women attempting to cope with spouses who have turned into sodaigomi -- or bulky trash.

"This is a severe problem for us," said Sayoko Nishida, 63, an author of two books on the topic who has organized Zen retreats to help older couples deal with RHS. "One of the main issues is that we are not a culture where people directly express their feelings, and many older women have nowhere to turn to share their anxiety."

Tomohisa Kotake, a 66-year-old retired banker, knows the story well. "At first, I was a typical retired Japanese husband -- I didn't do anything for myself and asked my wife to serve me," he said. It immediately strained his marriage. Part of the problem, he said, was that his wife still had many female friends, but most of his friends had been work acquaintances. Pushed by his wife, he finally joined one of the more than 3,000 support groups that have recently sprouted up nationwide, aimed at "re-training" retired Japanese men to be more independent and communicative with their wives.

Kotake's group -- Men in the Kitchen -- taught him how to shop, cook and clean for himself. He now does the dishes and cooks for his wife at least once a week. "I will never forget the look of happiness in her eyes the first time I cleaned the house while she was taking a bath," he said.

Kotake's wife, Nobuko Kotake, 62, now speaks glowingly of her husband. She said she had given up many outings with female friends to spend more time with him.

"By Japanese standards, we are still relatively young even though we are retired," Tomohisa Kotake said. "We have a long life ahead of us. It is better that we spend that time enjoying each other. Doing more around the house is a small price for me to pay."


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