Mount Fuji

Living longer, divorcing later
The Japanese silver divorce phenomenon

by J. SEAN CURTIN

(This article was first published in Aug. 2002 by J.I. GLOCOM,
 the Japanese Institute of Global Communications: glocom.org )

On Wednesday 31 July 2002, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare released life expectancy figures for 2001 showing that for the second year in a row Japanese longevity had reached new heights. Japanese life expectancies were already the highest in the world for both sexes. The new data shows that women can now expect to live an average of 84.93 years and men 78.07 years. To put these figures into a historical context, consider the following fact. In 1935 the average life expectancy of a Japanese male was just 46.92 years and only 49.63 years for a female. The tremendous increase in life-spans has had enormous impact on Japanese society over the last half century.

As in other industrially advanced countries, greatly increased life expectancy has gradually altered the way Japanese people think about and conceptualize marriage and the family. Although changing marriage patterns are often considered to be something that only affects young couples, senior citizens are not immune to their influence. Evidence of this can clearly be seen in the divorce statistics which have witnessed a sharp rise in late-life divorces over the last decade. This kind of phenomenon has been recorded in most other post-industrial societies such as the United Kingdom and Canada. In Japan, this is still a relatively new phenomenon, which society is gradually coming to terms with.

The foreign media has tended to largely concentrate on the effects increased longevity will have on the Japanese health care and pension system. Yet, as the ranks of senior citizens continue to swell, late-life divorce is also having a substantial economic impact.

Late-life divorces began to become conspicuous during the nineties as their influence on the statistics became more visible. Analyzing the figures, we can see there was a steady increase in the number of years the average marriage clocked up at the time of divorce. In 1970, the average marriage had lasted 6.8 years at the time of dissolution. However, by the mid-nineties the same figure had reached ten years indicating that many more people who had been married for a decade or more were starting to divorce. This shows that the majority of divorces had previously occurred in the early years of marriage; otherwise the average number of years would have been higher. Grouping divorce by years of marriage at the time of divorce also clearly indicates the presence of the late-life divorce trend. During the 1990s, couples who were divorcing after twenty years or more of marriage made up the third largest divorce category.

As the number of silver divorces gathered momentum, the Japanese media was forced to pay the issue some attention. The new trend was generally termed the jukunen rikon in Japanese, meaning late-life divorce. In recent years, the label silver divorce has also become popular. Initially, the press tended to focus on the so called abandoned elderly husbands. Press coverage claimed these men could barely survive once their wives left them. For a while, the media portrayed divorce after retirement as the worse case scenario for middle- aged businessmen. It became a kind sword of Damocles hanging over their retirement dreams. Little coverage was given to the severe economic austerity most wives had to endure after such a divorce. Gradually, the media image has become less sensational and a more balanced picture of the social consequences has emerged.

The jukunen rikon trend raises several questions, such as why Japanese couples wait so long before divorcing and what factors fuel the phenomenon? Silver divorces have their genesis in a complex mixture of intertwined social and economic forces, which evolved during the postwar period. These factors came to maturity in the nineties. Somewhat counter-intuitively, research shows that in most cases of late-life divorce it is the wife who initiates the process. Even though it is the wife who suffers most in economic terms, the husband is rarely the prime-mover.

So, why do many Japanese women wait twenty or more years before deciding to initiate a divorce? The answer is entangled in a complex web of socio-economic factors. In very simple terms, increased life-expectancy and better health in old age has made many women reflect more deeply on the actual quality of their marriage. This situation has encouraged women to consider a late-life divorce as a viable alternative to an unhappy union. Some researchers believe that this new phenomenon has arisen simply because people are living longer. They argue that in previous generations life expectancy was relatively short, meaning that silver divorce could rarely occurred. However, other research strongly indicates that people's attitudes towards marriage have significantly changed and that this is another major factor behind senior marital dissolution in industrially advanced countries.

In 2002, the average Japanese couple could expect to be together for at least twenty to twenty-five years after the husband's retirement. Because of the busy routine of many male workers, retirement usually marks the beginning of a phase in which the couple will spend much more time together than at any other stage in the marriage. Obviously, if the couple do not get on very well or one partner cannot tolerate the other, then rising longevity increases the possibility of a late-life divorce. Recent divorce statistics reveal that the prospect of spending retirement in close proximity to someone you do not get along with has became less appealing to many Japanese.

An additional social factor influencing late-life divorces is the social reputation of adult offspring. By the time of the husband's retirement, children would most likely have left home and probably married. Thus, if the mother decided to initiate a divorce at this juncture, it would cause her offspring the minimum of social embarrassment. Divorcing before their children marry might create a negative impression to potential partners. After the children have married, such considerations greatly recede. However, in present day Japan, divorce carrys much less social stigma than it once did. In previous decades, when divorce was viewed more negatively, the fear of a social backlash probably meant many women endured unhappy marriages.

While various social factors formed some of the key components in the upsurge of divorces amongst the elderly during the 1990s, they were only one element in the equation. Economic considerations were the other dynamic driving the modern Japanese silver divorce phenomenon.

In previous generations, the wife could not normally achieve economic viability after a late-life divorce. Even today, elderly women must usually accept greatly reduced economic circumstances if they want to divorce. Since a young woman's economic position usually deteriorates after divorce, an elderly wife's situation is even more precarious. Obtaining paid employment in times of financial hardship might not be practical or possible for older women.

By the 1990s, women were getting a much better divorce settlement than at any other time in Japanese history. For older women, two decades of shared living gave them a very strong legal position with regard to the distribution of marital assets. If the wife waits until the husband has retired, she is in an even better financial situation. This is because she is entitled to a large share of the husband's retirement severance payment and other benefits. In most cases, the wife demands half of the household assets and a large portion of the husband's service-severance payment. If she manages to obtain both, then she is able to create a reasonable financial basis for her own post-divorce retirement. Strengthened legal positions and better financial returns explain the timing of many silver divorces.

Even if the wife achieves all her objectives, she will normally still face financial hardship. This is because the average female pension is lower than its male counterpart. A divorced woman retains the right to any pension that her husband has contributed towards prior to divorce. The pension is proportionate to the number of years for which the premium was paid. The longer the period, the higher the pension. All these financial factors help explain why many women wait so long to divorce.

The emergence of silver divorces has subtly changed the dynamics within many long-standing relationships as husbands begin to realize the danger of taking their wives for granted. Many middle age Japanese men acknowledge that they could not manage without their wife's help.

During the nineties, a woman's general legal position with regard to divorce improved somewhat. If this trend continues, it should eventually lead to much earlier mid-life divorces and less late-life divorces. In future decades, silvers divorce will probably decline as the economic position of divorced women gradually improves and divorce becomes a much more common aspect of everyday Japanese life. This trend combined with the current tendency of marrying late will slowly alter the dynamics of marriage and divorce. However, for the next decade or so, late life divorce will probably still be a feature of Japanese life. Silver divorces remind us that increased life-expectancy is having many varied kinds of influences on Japanese society and that senior citizens are affected by new social currents just like the younger cohorts.

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Editor's note: Prof. J. Sean Curtin of the Japanese Red Cross University at Kitami in Hokkaido is a regular contributor to the GLOCOM Platform from Japan — an online global forum where leading Japanese can express opinions and exchange ideas with the international community. I would like to express my thanks to Prof. Curtin and to GLOCOM  for kindly allowing me to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.