Divorce, Japanese Style

Matsui commented that the amendment will likely facilitate divorce, but it remains to be seen whether the amendment will cause a spike in the divorce rate. The rate has recently declined from a peak in 2002 (see graph below), when close to 290,000 couples split up, but it's easy to speculate that the reason for this drop is that many are just biding their time for the new law, which was passed in the Diet in 2003. The weekly magazine Shukan Post estimates that some 42,000 marriages may fall prey to the law.

Divorce in Japan The magazine ran a feature on the new law in September. It included an observation from Sakai Toshiyuki, a private investigator: "Since around May of this year, we've been getting a sharp rise in requests by wives to track their husbands' activities," he says. "The clients are not only interested in uncovering their husband's marital infidelity, but also want to know if they spend large amounts going out drinking at cabarets or in gambling casinos. I suppose their aim is to use this information as ammunition at the divorce hearing.

While the number of marriages ending may fluctuate, divorce seems to play a larger role in Japanese culture than ever before and its ramifications are the subject of more serious debate. While some say the changes to the pension system are necessary and fair, others insist the amendment will hurt men more than women. Japanese men also suffer from the effects of divorce - many don't take care of themselves, drink more and experience more loneliness and serious depression than their ex-wives, say some social experts. A popular drama series on the TV Asahi network at the end of 2005 had this as its theme. "Jukunen Rikon" (Middle-aged Divorce) starred veteran actor Watari Tetsuya struggling to come to terms with his wife's sudden decision to seek an end to their long marriage.

Divorce consultant Okano Atsuko says, "I'm getting more calls from middle-aged women and many of them say they want to wait till next April. Also many members of the "dantai no sedai" (baby bomers) will reach retirement age next year. As a wife, knowing that you'll have a certain monthly income to live on is a big factor."

Divorce Fact

Typical salary at retirement - ¥5.6 million; wife is full-time housewife. Husband's Employee Pension - ¥100,000/month. Husband and wife both receive ¥66,000/month from National Pension. If she waits till after the law amendment, a divorcee can expect her monthly entitlement to increase to up to ¥116,000/month.

Though it is generally agreed that Japanese women face a more difficult road after divorce than men, there is the perception that some wives take a mercenary approach to divorce, waiting for their husbands to qualify for retirement pay before seeking a divorce, for example. The divorce rate among middle-aged couples is said to have doubled in the last decade. It is also said that wives seek an end to marriage more often than husbands. Some even argue that women who have never worked outside the home should not be entitled to a pension at all, especially not a portion of their ex-husbands' employment benefits.

In the end, divorce hurts both parties and the amendment is being implemented in the hope of making the financial transition easier for women, especially the elderly and mothers.

Matsui said many believe the pension system itself is in need of critical reexamination. Although the National Pension is given to everyone, its benefits are quite limited and critics say it must be restructured.