Love

Why Japanese Women Get Divorced After 20 Years Of Marriage

Photo: Jupiterimages, yuruphoto, shisuka, kitzcorner | Canva 
Divorced couple from Japan

In Japan, roughly one in three marriages end up in divorce. The number of divorces has been on a recent downward trend after a long period of increase, but one particular change is striking: the proportion of couples who divorce after living together for over 20 years rose to a record high of 21.5% in 2020.

This phenomenon, called jukunen-rikon (gray divorce), is becoming common among women tired of supporting their husbands. But why does it take so long for these marriages to dissolve?

In addition to the fact that divorce remains stigmatizing in Japan, multiple factors contribute to women remaining trapped in dysfunctional marriages.

Here are the reasons why Japanese women get divorced after 20 years of marriage:

1. Parenting and divorce make Japanese women financially vulnerable 

The burden of parenting placed on Japanese women’s shoulders is unbearably heavy. A global survey reports that child-rearing penalties — the negative effects of parenting — are extremely large in Japan and South Korea compared even to other Asian countries including China and Southeast Asia.

44% of Japanese women quit their jobs after having a child, the highest in both the G7 and the eight Asian countries included in the research.

The motivations behind Japanese women opting to be home-staying mothers vary. However, the reactions on social media to this survey reveal entrenched gender stereotypes. Typical comments include: “Japanese women are lucky. Women in Western countries are deprived of the joy of spending intimate time with their kids,” as if the financial insecurities Japanese women face don’t matter.

The lack of reliable financial resources for women does lead to hardship. Although Japan is generally viewed as a poverty-free country, the poverty rate for single mothers is 45%, much higher than the global average of 32%.

In divorce cases, Japanese laws allow married couples to divide the household income earned during the marriage by half. If a husband has committed infidelity, his wife can claim alimony, but the husband doesn’t need to financially support her post-divorce life. Shockingly, three out of four fathers in Japan do not pay child support fees after their divorces, often completely severing ties with their children.

The outdated gender stereotype and the lack of legal safety networks limit the life choices available to women, causing many to endure the burden of a dysfunctional marriage. Some wait patiently until their husbands receive retirement pay after the age of 60 or 65 to receive a fair share of assets during the divorce.

Photo: beauty-box/Photo AC

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2. The single surname and custody system

Japan is the only country that legally requires married couples to use a single surname. This leads to the lopsided power dynamics at home; 96% of married women take their husbands’ family name, abandoning their maiden name.

If their children are over 18, their parent’s divorce has minimal impact; parents don’t need to fight over custody or family names. Most children retain their fathers’ family name, while the mother reverts to her maiden name.

However, if the children are still minors, the single custody and single surname system complicates matters. Japanese laws usually grant the mother sole custody, but the issue of the family name remains unresolved. If children opt to change their family name to their mothers’ maiden name, it can affect their social lives, particularly at school. This is another reason Japanese women stay in broken marriages.

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3. Overwhelming stress from living with retired husbands

Japanese women are the most sleep-deprived people in the world. Japanese men still avoid housework, and women rarely get the chance to relax even after their husbands retire.

There’s an old saying, teishu genki de rusu ga ii, which translates to, “It’s best when husbands are healthy and out of the house.” I find this awful because staying together only for money isn’t my ideal relationship, but this still rings true for many.

The traditional Japanese husband is bossy at home, shouting out for tea or whatever he wants without even calling his wife’s name. He may also expect her to take care of his parents living under the same roof.

In the home country of longevity, many women find this unfair and outdated. Some women choose to restart their lives instead of enduring never-ending housework and unpaid eldercare.

Photo: Photo AC

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My Firsthand Experience

From the time I was 10 years old, my mother used to tell me, “I will get divorced after you grow up.” She insisted that she remained in a dysfunctional marriage only for my benefit, but I couldn’t agree with her.

I often told her that I would prefer she get a divorce now rather than use me as an excuse to stay in an unhappy relationship. But she insisted girls needed two parents to land a promising husband, which I thought was complete nonsense.

Despite their constant fights, my parents stayed together even after I got married in my 20s. It was me who got divorced. I couldn’t bear the thought of telling my future child the same thing: I wish I could divorce right now, but I have to wait until you grow up. I had to end my malfunctional marriage before having a child no matter how selfish it seemed to my family and friends.

I changed my surname three times before I became a happily re-married mother, and I still feel a twinge of envy for Japanese men who don’t need to deal with name changes. Fortunately, my second marriage has brought me pure joy, and I have no regrets about the decisions I’ve made.

However, many Japanese women find divorce too traumatic. For instance, my friend’s mother, in her 60s, represents an alternative path. She moved out when her husband retired and started living by herself in a serene location. She chose farming over taking care of her husband.

Now I firmly believe that every woman deserves fair compensation for their work with or without a future divorce plan. In particular, in this country where the male-dominated government runs the politics to cater to men’s interests, women need to be proactive about life planning. After all, it’s never too late to embark on a fresh start.

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Yuko Tamura is a writer, cultural translator, and the editor-in-chief of Japonica based in Tokyo. Her articles have been featured in The Japan Times, Unseen Japan, The Good Men Project, BBC Radio, and more.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.