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Doting their way to happily ever after

A new push in Japan teaches men, who tend to put work before family, to shift the focus to pleasing their wives.

February 18, 2007|Hiroko Tabuchi | Associated Press Writer

TOKYO — Mitsutoshi Fukatsu has been with his wife for three decades, but their lives have grown apart. As a busy stationmaster in central Japan, he usually came home only to eat, bathe and sleep.

But with retirement looming, Fukatsu, 56, wants to get to know his wife better. He calls her by her name, Setsuko, instead of just grunting. And he says he recently learned a new phrase: "I love you."

Fukatsu is among a small but growing group of men who took part in Japan's second annual "Beloved Wives Day" last month in hopes of salvaging their marriages by doing something different: paying attention to their wives.

"For about a year now, I've been starting to help out with the housework," Fukatsu said. "I can't stay at my company forever. I have to return home. But right now, I don't feel like I have a place there."

Last year, the Japan Adoring Husbands Assn. set itself up and designated Jan. 31 as a day for men to return home at the unusually early hour of 8 p.m., look into their wives' eyes, and say, "Thank you."

This year, the village where the association is based held a renewal-of-vows ceremony for a local couple in their 50s and handed out prizes to three top "doting husbands."

The movement is small -- about 230 people posted messages on the group's Web page about this year's event. But it represents quite a change for a generation of Japanese men taught to care about their companies first and their wives a distant second.

Among the forces driving the change are demographics and money.

This year, the first postwar baby boomers will reach 60 and retire, meaning an unprecedented number of men will have to abandon their home-away-from-home -- the all-consuming office -- and spend more time with their wives.

Meanwhile, an impending change in the law gives a homemaker a bigger share of her husband's pension, which could trigger a surge in divorces as long-neglected women take the money and run.

Japan's divorce rate is a relatively low -- 2.08 per 1,000 couples -- but the number has increased more than 60% since 1985 to 261,917 in 2005, according to government statistics.

Divorce among those married for more than 20 years has grown the fastest, nearly doubling since 1985 to more than 40,000 couples in 2005 -- with separation more likely to be initiated by women. That leaves their ex-husbands to face a lonely old age in a country where the average male lifespan exceeds 78, one of the world's longest.

"Once children become independent and wives get more free time, they start wondering: 'Am I happy with this life?' " Atsuko Okano, a Tokyo-based divorce counselor, writes on her website.

Sadao Ito, 67, wishes he had been more sensitive to his wife's feelings. She left him seven years ago, just as he was facing retirement from a busy office job in the northern city of Sendai. Even the couple's daughter and two sons blame him for the breakup, Ito said.

"My wife took care of me so well. She made me breakfast every day and did all the housework. But I never did anything in return," he said.

Ito now acts as a volunteer advisor to the Adoring Husbands Assn., which was founded in 2005 in Tsumagoi village, north of Tokyo.

"Repent, repent, repent. That's what I do every day," Ito said in a phone interview. "My wife didn't take a single family album with her. I realized then that I had driven her away."

Tsumagoi, whose name sounds like the words "wife love" in Japanese, is marketing itself as a romantic destination for married couples.

Last year, it invited couples to an event called "Shout Your Love from the Middle of a Cabbage Patch." Husbands took turns hollering romantic messages against a backdrop of Tsumagoi's wide open fields. About 100 people came.

That was where the stationmaster finally told his wife aishiteru -- I love you -- rehearsing it 20 times.

"I had never told Setsuko I love her -- not like that. But now I want to say it more often.... It feels nice," he said.

Setsuko Fukatsu appreciates it.

The couple's two daughters will eventually leave home, "so the two of us need to live a happy and a healthy life together," she said. "And I'm sure my husband will help me out with that."

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