washingtonpost.com
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
Monday, 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.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company