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Japan’s Older Salarymen: Their Marriages and Their Lives

Learn to Be Nice to Your Wife, or Pay the Price: Japan’s Salarymen, With Pensions At Stake, Work on Their Marriages

Japan’s Salarymen, With Pensions At Stake, Work on Their Marriages
by Blaine Harden
Nov. 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.

I’m wondering how much things have changed since this article was published in 2007. In my experience, living here for so many years, I certainly noticed that expressions of love are handled differently than I was used to. My father, who was born in 1917 in severe poverty in the South, had very old-fashioned views about life, very traditional and religious. He was nonetheless a hugely affectionate guy, to his kids and to my Mom. He was very proud to ‘give me away’ in marriage to a guy who was also very openly affectionate: for him, that’s part of what made a real man.

Daddy&Teresa

There was lots of dysfunction in my household – but there was also so much love, expressed in a very open, active way. My Mom was quite shy, but Daddy would get home after a long day skinning cattle, and lift her up in joy at being home, with her hitting at him ineffectually and laughing in embarrassment – and pleasure. Hugging was an everyday occurrence. Saying ‘I love you’ did not lose one bit of its value because we all said it so often. On the contrary, my brother and I took our cues from our parents, and demonstrated that love was a bedrock, a key foundation that took us through some horrific experiences.

I grew up hugging cousins, friends, even casual acquaintances when our hearts connected.

Living here, and being close friends with a few older Japanese couples, I have been struck at how difficult it was to sense their emotion and connection with each other. Many of them seem like 2 boats that happen to be passing each other in the same small, shallow lake. To say nothing of the difficulties of being in relationship myself: the expectation of the expression of affection is very different here.

In the end, this is one of the main reasons that I will leave this land that I have come, in many ways, to love.

With all of that background, this 2007 article in the Washington Post’s Tokyo Stories series, just struck me as…funny. A bit sad. And ultimately, optimistic, in that perhaps the main motivation for these men to join the association and work for their certificates (a very common thing here) may have been to stave off a divorce that deletes half their pension. But I am hoping, for their human sakes, that expressing love and trust gains them a more self-aware, happier life.

So, what I want to ask our readers/listeners who live in Japan is this: do you see changes for the better in the attitudes of the older salarymen you work (or live) with? Do they seem to be getting more comfortable with affection, openly expressed?

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