Japan braced for divorce epidemic as 'salarymen' hang up their suits

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The Independent Online

It should be a cause for national celebration. The baby boomers who made up the first wave of Japan's corporate samurai will begin hanging up their dark blue suits next year, and retiring en masse to the suburbs, easing company payrolls and injecting billions in "grey" yen into the economy. The looming retirement of about 6.8 million male baby boomers is something to make everyone happy.

Everyone, it seems, except their wives, many of whom are dreading the prospect of living in close quarters with virtual strangers. "I wanted him to keep working but I've accepted now he's going to come home," says Hatae Ishizaki, whose 59-year-old architect husband is due to punch his last card in April next year. "I'm just going to spend more time out of the house. I'd divorce him, but it's too much trouble at my age."

Not every woman is opting to stick it out. Some media commentators are warning of a deluge of divorces after 2007, once the reality of life with former "salarymen" who have nurtured their careers much more carefully than their marriages begins to sink in.

Japan has some of the longest hours of unpaid overtime in the world. Salarymen generally spend more time in the company of male work colleagues than with their families. In their scarce hours out of the office, husbands are poor home-makers - a recent survey found that men in Japan did just four hours housework a week, far fewer than their counterparts elsewhere. Among the cruel spousal monickers for wrung-out, retired husbands with minimal life skills are nure ochiba (wet leaves) and sodai gomi (big rubbish). "It's like having another child around the house," says Mrs Ishizaki.

Such domestic friction is one factor behind Japan's growing divorce rate, which has climbed steadily for almost two decades, despite a recent decline in break-ups among long-term married couples. The statistical blip has led some to speculate that divorces may have peaked, but the journalist Nobuko Ishino has a darker explanation - many wives are simply biding their time.

Next year, a change in the law will mean that workers' pensions can be split between spouses. Ms Ishino, who has written a series of articles on Japan's baby boomers, is one of several commentators predicting that thousands of unhappy women are secretly planning to ditch their husbands once they have financial independence.

"Men should prepare themselves for a shock," she told a recent conference. "Women's dissatisfaction lies at the bottom of their mind like magma. Husbands don't understand they are despised and disliked by their wives."

One of Japan's top-selling weekly magazines, Shukan Bunshun, recently peered inside hundreds of baby-boomer households and was shocked to find that many middle-aged women were practising their farewell speeches.

"To my husband: Don't suddenly get friendly with me after all these years of leaving me alone now that you have retired from your company. It's too late now!" said one 55-year-old woman who contributed to the magazine's survey.

Professor Shigeru Kashima of Kyoritsu Women's University is one of several academics in the magazine who offers advice to men. Professor Kashima advises retired baby boomers to "move their wives to the centre of attention" and "compliment them on their physical attributes". If that doesn't work, get used to single life, he warns.