I should start off by saying that I’m not getting divorced. I’m still happily married and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Some of my fellow expatriates and Japanese friends haven’t been so lucky though.
Which, to my naive self, seems a little surprising. Don’t get me wrong, I come from a divorced family and pretty much everyone in my family has gotten divorced at one time in their lives. I know it exists and is out there. I just didn’t think it was all that common in Japan.
The divorce rate (the red line in the linked article) is in line with a lot of other developed countries and it actually peaked around 2001, and has been slowly drifting down, but it didn’t use to be like that. Some people believe that this slow drift down is due to the lower marriage rate in Japan. As you can see from the linked article, Japan’s marriage rate is also on the decrease (it’s the blue line in the graphs). People are also getting married older, which has been shown to lead to happier more successful marriages.
However, Japan, pre-2000s, was known for its low divorce rate. You may even heard that it still has a low divorce rate. There is a general perception that people get married for life and that’s that, much like the lifetime employment system that Japan supposedly has. But, like that lifetime employment system, the old ways of doing things are finally giving in to modern problems. So, what happened? Why was it relatively low in the first place?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Getting divorced in Japan is a simple matter of filling out the paperwork to do so. There really isn’t that much fuss to be honest. More often than not lawyers aren’t called in. Instead, counselors at the city office help sort things out. This is probably in part due to the fact that assets are generally not held jointly by the couple. For instance, people usually don’t have joint bank accounts in Japan. I’m not even sure if you can have joint accounts.
Divorces don’t generally tend to be the all out blood bath that can result from some divorces in the States. And the whole process won’t cost you, financially speaking, that much. Just a few processing fees.
There are even divorce ceremonies where the former betrothed get together to smash their wedding ring and symbolically let it go. The trend supposedly started here and has spread to other countries. I’m not sure if I could possibly go through anything like that to be honest, but many report a feeling of closure.
The divorce rate is currently 0.18%, which sounds really small, but what that means is that 0.18% of the population, every year, is getting divorced. Considering only about 0.52% of the population is getting married every year, that is a pretty high rate of divorce. And there is still a pretty strong stigma against it. A lot of woman have found it difficult to get a job. Although, Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister of Japan from 2001-2006, was a divorcee that never remarried.
Another sad fact about divorce is that there is no joint custody system in Japan. This means that one parent, usually the mother, retains sole custody of the children. Any visitation is arranged informally and can not be enforced by the courts. In some cases, children never see their father again. Prime Minister Koizumi, has two children from his marriage that he has custody of, but a third child, born after the divorce has never met his father.
It doesn’t always end that way of course. I have a friend that did not have custody of her kids, but is able to see them on a regular basis. She even went on a few vacations with her ex-husband and his new wife to be with her kids. But, of course, that has to be a fringe case.
Preparing for divorce
I recently read an article in Aera, a weekly newspaper, that detailed a roadmap to getting divorced. It even had a trendy looking infographic about how to prepare for the big event, detailing tips like keeping a diary on all the negative interactions that you can use in your favor to argue for divorce. The article went on to talk about a handful of horror stories about woman that weren’t able to escape from a marriage and how to avoid the same fate.
A Japanese friend of mine recently confided in me that he had found his wife’s journal that detailed every argument they ever had. The date and time and what was discussed. And, at least from my prospective, he just seems to be a regular hard-working guy with 2 kids that he worries about a lot. I find it hard to imagine living in the same house as someone that is planning and making arrangements to get divorced.
But, actually, another, much older (60s) Japanese friend of mine, told me about how him and his wife had made plans to get divorced in a few years so that he can start work overseas, and she could get his full government pension. It seems a little odd to me, but in a country where men are still the major, and sometimes only money maker in the family, it is a reality that sometimes plays out.
About a year ago, I was leaving the house to go to work and a distraught woman buzzed my doorbell. When I stepped out I saw a huge moving truck parked in front of my house. Apparently, she was a friend of our neighbor’s and they were moving out that day. It seemed a little odd to me because we had just talked to her and she didn’t mention anything about moving out despite the fact she was the hancho (neighborhood leader, and yes that is where the phrase ‘head honcho’ kind of comes from).
And then *poof* she was gone. The husband is still there. The sad thing is they had 4 kids, which is positively nuts, but I haven’t seen them since either. So, she hit the road, took the kids with her, and didn’t look back. At first it seemed a bit odd, but through a long, roundabout neighborhood connection, we later found out it had been a case of DV – domestic violence. So, I hope her and her kids are living a better life somewhere.
My Two Cents
So, from all these anecdotes, you might think that I’m pretty pessimistic about marriage, or at least terrified of getting divorced. But, I always try to think positively, and although my wife and I are going through a bit of a rough streak (for non-relationship reasons, sorry long story), I feel like we are good for the long haul. In my humble opinion, I think we have a few advantages to our marriage that keeps us together through thick and thin.
First, I think a lot of people in Japan have a communication problem. Men and women think and act fairly differently. They tend to be motivated by very different things as well. And in Japan, a place where men and women live pretty different lives, that gap is even more pronounced. In the West, communication skills are learned through the tough and sometimes unforgiving social interactions that arise from junior high and high school through countless nervous first phone calls to awkward conversations sitting in cars to timid requests for a dance.
That proving ground doesn’t really exist in Japan. There are no dances, there is not a lot of pressure to ask a date to a dance. There is no prom, where everyone that’s anyone must have a date. There is no engine for forced interaction between the sexes. This of course keeps everyone focused on their studies, but does little to develop their emotional intelligence.
I know a lot of people, in their 30s, that have only had 2 or 3 boyfriends/girlfriends in their lives. I’ve also met others on the other end of the spectrum, but I would say on average, people here just don’t have that many boyfriends/girlfriends. How can you know who you want to marry after dating only a handful of people?
And that communication problem used to be solved by a very simple machine of arranged marriage and lifetime employment. That machine brought post-war Japan to the forefront of the world. And people got married, the man worked his tail off in the office, the wife worked her tail off at home cleaning, cooking, networking with neighbors, and helping kids with homework. Love grew out of simply being together a lot like brothers and sisters end up loving each other even after all the fighting with each other.
Society kept the couple together because you had two whole families (not just two people) interested in keeping the union together. This by the way is not ‘traditional’ Japanese culture. Before new Meiji regulations came into effect in 1899, the divorce rate in Japan was sky high, higher than the current rate in the States. It wasn’t until the government started making changes to the law to help make the country more stable that this new cultural norm was created.
Now of course, Japan is facing all the modern craziness that other developed countries are experiencing. There is a rapid urbanization of the population that separates kids from families. Individuals are being transferred all over the country away from family that could enforce the social norms of keeping a marriage together. The perpetually sagging economy that can never quite take off coupled with worker inefficiency keeps people working late hours and away from being able to just sit and have a decent conversation with their spouses. These are all factors that make keeping a marriage together pretty tough.
What is your experience?
Do you have any anecdotes you can share? What is your experience? Let me know in the comments.
Photo by Marc Hatot