Escaping from marriage,
avoiding office love

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 130(50), 19 December 1985, pages 84-85

In Japan each year, about 1.5 divorces occur among every 1,000 men, women and children. This commonly cited statistic makes divorce seem very remote. But an entirely different picture emerges when only the married population is considered, and when the risk of divorce is computed for the duration of a marriage.

In fact, one out of every 200 married couples divorce each year in Japan, while one divorce is registered for every four marriages. And the probability that a first marriage will end in divorce before it is overtaken by death is very roughly one in four or five.

In February this year, present and former members of the imperial family held a reunion, attended by the emperor and 91 other adults. Nine of them had been divorced. Since many of the attendees were couples, the current divorce rate of Japan's royalty is 10 percent to 20 percent--not unlike that of the loyal masses.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare recently reported that the number of divorces in Japan last year fell for the first time in 21 years. The crude rate (number of divorces per 1,000 total population per year) dropped slightly to 1.5 in 1984 after doubling over the past two decades. Not reported was that as much as half of the increase from 0.73 in 1963 to 1.51 in 1983 was due to demographic changes.

Japan's postwar baby boom began coming of age in the late 1960s. The marriage rate peaked in 1972, and has fallen every year since. As the average (which is not to say typical) divorce occurs around the 10th year of marriage, the peak in the divorce rate should lag behind the peak in the marriage rate by about a decade. And this is just what has been observed.

While the divorce rate was increasing, analysts attributed the trend to post-war changes in the legal status of .women, more education and jobs for women, and hence greater economic independence, and a decline in the social stigma of divorce. Critics feared that Japan was heading down the same road as the US and found a ready scapegoat in uuman ribu (women's lib). Columnists in the habit of taking crude statistics at face value credited last year's insignificant drop in the divorce rate to contrived socioeconomic causes such as "conservative second thoughts about family disruptions" and "shortage of jobs for divorced women due to the recession."

In a country that thrives on international comparisons, it was a wonder that no one explained the turnabout as further evidence of influence from the US, where the number of divorces has been dropping since 1982 after years of being on the rise. But Japanese media did report that the US rate is still about four times higher than Japan's. France's rate was said to be only slightly greater than Japan's, while those of the other northwestern European countries fell between the US and French rates.

This fulfilled the Japanese need to be confirmed in their belief that Japan is physically, mentally and socially healthier than--hence culturally superior to--its rivals. Figures which show Japan to be lowest in infant mortality, crime and unemployment, and highest in longevity, also convince the Japanese that they are doing something not only right but better. And perhaps they are.

Divorce is relatively easy in Japan. Nearly 90 percent of all divorcing couples dissolve their marriages through mutual agreement, a procedure which requires only the affixing of personal chops to simple forms. But an increasing percentage of divorces involve conciliation through mediators, determination by a family court, or litigation in a regular court. Until a few years ago, most divorces were initiated by men. Today the number of divorces filed by women is more than half and rising. Women now petition in about 75 percent of all family court divorces.

Couples are divorcing later in their marriages, when most will have had children. Consequently more children under 20 years old are being raised in single-parent families. The number of such families has increased by more than 13 percent in the past five years. But divorce, rather than death or unmarried mothers, is now the leading cause.

Single-parent families produced more than half of the delinquents questioned during a Ministry of Justice study in 1983. Newspaper reports of delinquency also give the impression that children raised by only one parent are more likely to get into trouble. Divorce opponents have tried to link the apparent increase in anti-social behaviour among children to the "selfishness" of the modern woman who cannot "stick out" a marriage that her traditional sister would have felt duty-bound to endure for the sake of the children, if not family and self.

Divorce will become even more controversial as patterns of marriage and family change. Couples are marrying later, and not only are they having fewer children, but fewer first children are "honeymoon babies." Thus more women study or work longer before marriage, and continue to pursue their academic and career interests longer after marriage than in the past. And once they begin bearing children, they have fewer children to raise, and more time to cultivate the ambitions they acquired in the classroom and office. Or they work part time to pay for the gadgets that make home life so easy, and thus dull.

Increasing longevity means that couples face more years together than in the past. But rising retirement ages force longer careers on men, whose wives--without a retired husband to babysit at home--are thus freer to occupy themselves elsewhere and otherwise. Moreover, lower seniority pay results in less income, which wives are compelled to supplement through outside work.

A housewife with children in school is also under increasing pressure to work at least part time, which inevitably expands her social horizons. She meets other women in her own situation, and men who may attract her more than her husband. The wife for whom outside work and social networks fail to provide the needed release for pent-up energies, may start to abuse alcohol or drugs. More young women start drinking before marriage, which increases the risk of their taking up drink as a remedy for isolation or other marital problems.

In Japan, as in the US and other industrialised countries, divorce tends to be more traumatic for men than for women, who also survive other experiences of separation better than the "stronger" sex. Divorced men--but also widowed men and bachelors--have comparatively higher suicide rates than divorced women. Although men in general are about twice as likely to commit suicide as women, divorced men are four times more likely to kill themselves.

This means that men are more dependent on marriage as a form of life support. That marriage is comparatively more stressful for women, and more nurturing for, men, may explain why many Japanese men are alarmed about the emergence of intellectually and economically more independent women. According to most public opinion polls such men often refuse to accept that many women are actually taking charge of their lives, and persist in their belief that women still behave in more traditional ways.

The perception gap is widened by TV dramas that come out squarely on the side of women. A number of recent TV movies have featured heroines who successfully escape their unbearable marriages. Most of these programmes are aired between 9 and 11 at night, when the children are in bed and the wives have time to kill while waiting for their husbands to stumble home from after-hours "work" in restaurants, pubs, and cabarets. While the late commuters bury their heads in intoxicating tabloids, comic books and weekly magazines advising them how to avoid the snags of ofisu rabu (office love) when seducing their young female coworkers, their wives learn how to escape from married life.