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'In-Family Divorces' Common in Japan : Lifestyles: Social and economic pressures force couples into unofficial separations after marriages fail. Some continue to share a house.

May 16, 1993|YURI KAGEYAMA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TOKYO — Two electric rice cookers sit side by side in the kitchen, symbols of how far apart Takashi Uehara and his wife, Ritsuko, have grown in 17 years of marriage.

They live more as grudging roommates than husband and wife. They do their cooking, cleaning and laundry separately. They have not had sex in more than two years.

"Some people have told us our relationship is pathetic," Takashi Uehara said. "They can't understand why we're still together."

Even though they exchange barely more than perfunctory greetings on most days, Takashi Uehara said he did not think he could bear living alone.

Instead of a divorce, the Ueharas chose a living arrangement common in Japan, where loveless marriages often end in stalemate rather than separation.

As Japanese women become better educated and are exposed to Western ideas of equality, they marry later, have fewer children and challenge traditional marital roles.

Takashi Uehara said, for example, that the living arrangement he and his wife have made was "a result of our choice to try to confront our equality."

Because family and social structures lag behind the trends, more and more couples opt for "in-house" separations that keep up the appearance of marriage long after the emotional bonds have dissolved.

Such katei-nai rikon-- in-family divorces--may be a major factor in keeping Japan's divorce rate at the low figure of about 1.3 per 1,000 couples, or 160,000 divorces. The U.S. ratio in 1990 was 4.7 per 1,000, or 1.2 million divorces.

No official figures are available for "in-family divorces," but they are common.

In some cases, the husband uses a job in a distant city as a pretext for unofficial separation. Other couples, like the Ueharas, continue living together.

Such practices reflect the discrimination Japanese women face in a society where old customs die slowly and equal employment laws are not enforced.

In Japan and many other Asian countries, husbands and wives have tended to live quite separate lives, unlike men and women in the couple-oriented United States.

Many Japanese companies still expect male employees to put their careers above family life.

Japanese men often describe an ideal marriage as one in which the husband and wife treat each other like air: essential for survival but taken for granted. Because of this, many Japanese women find themselves living with virtual strangers.

"Married women are quite dissatisfied," said Satomi Nakajima, 54, a member of a city council near Tokyo. "They want their husbands to share their interests and the domestic chores."

Nakajima got a divorce and later married a schoolteacher she says is sensitive, communicative and helpful around the house.

Some women secretly welcome the opportunity to live apart when employers transfer husbands to distant cities or abroad, leaving the families behind so that the children's schooling will not be disrupted.

The Labor Ministry estimates that this frequent practice has separated more than 200,000 couples.

Married Japanese men have traditionally sought romance and sexual satisfaction outside marriage, keeping mistresses if they could afford it.

After generations of accepting that, many women now have affairs of their own, said Chizuko Ueno, a sociologist and feminist. They stay married to benefit from the husband's earning power.

Divorce remains a social stigma in Japan, for families as well as the couple. Unless both parties consent, divorce proceedings are protracted and difficult. Women have a hard time getting alimony and child-support payments.

A woman's financial dependence on her husband is the most persuasive argument for continuing an unhappy marriage.

"Many women can't get divorced simply because they can't support their families," said Mizuho Fukushima, a lawyer.

Ritsuko Uehara, a potter who works at home, had threatened to seek a divorce but agreed to stay with her husband to save on rent and other living costs.

"I couldn't understand what it was that she wanted," Takashi Uehara said of his wife. "She kept telling me I only thought about myself and that I talked down to her."

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