August 3, 1997 in Nation/World

Traditional Roles On Rocks In Japan Tokyo Court Ruling Fuels Sentiment

Mary Jordan The Washington Post
 

A Japanese court ruled Thursday in favor of a 33-year-old woman who divorced her husband after he demanded that every day she cook him breakfast, press his pants and clean the house. The woman worked full time, but the husband said it was the wife’s job to do all the housework.

The husband, a 35-year-old public servant, filed a lawsuit demanding that his wife pay him about $38,000 in damages because she did not live up to her end of the marriage arrangement.

The Tokyo District Court on Thursday rejected the husband’s demand for damages but did ask the woman to return her wedding rings and a cash gift of $8,000.

The case was applauded by women’s groups and seen as a sign of the rising resistance among women to traditional Japanese men who refuse to help with cooking and cleaning, and even expect their wives to draw their baths.

“Maybe it will start some kind of union for victims of housework,” said Mariko Kuyama, a journalist and commentator. “If she can win this suit, it’s going to give all these other women who are tortured by housework the idea to sue. They will realize that they can go to court and win.”

An increasing number of young women delay or even refuse to marry because of the long-established expectations that women alone raise the children and take care of the housework. Surveys show the average age at which women marry has risen to 27, with an increasing number now deciding not to tie the knot at all, leading the government to worry about a rapidly dropping birthrate.

In the unusual court case that put common domestic squabbles on trial, the husband demanded that his wife cook him miso soup and rice each morning, take care of all household chores and ensure that he be given a monthly allowance of $850. In Japan, the woman usually takes the man’s paycheck, pays bills and then gives her husband a sum he can spend on lunch, drinks and entertainment.

“There was a reason for every action that the woman took,” Judge Hiroto Waki said in his order, saying it was reasonable that the woman did not want to live with her husband under these conditions.

The names of the couple were not made public. Like many Japanese couples, the pair met through a go-between or matchmaker. In February 1995, not long after their arranged meeting, they married.

Apparently, the wife, who also is a public servant, had agreed to some of the husband’s household requirements. But according to the court papers, she made it clear at the outset that if she were to take care of the house and her job, she needed to live near her place of employment.

But almost from the moment the couple returned from their honeymoon in Hawaii, there was trouble. The husband rejected nine suitable homes, and an appropriate residence was never found, the wife said. When the woman moved out, the husband, charging the breakup was her fault, filed the lawsuit for damages.

But the judge ruled that “it was not appropriate to say that the woman broke” the relationship, and he refused to award any damages to the husband. The woman already had returned her rings.

Kuyama said that as more Japanese women enter the work force, more young Japanese men have had to pitch in to help with children and household chores. “It’s not that they want to, but they have to,” Kuyama said. “They have no choice as women become more independent.”

But the traditional evening of men lounging around sipping sake or watching television as their wives prepare dinner, clean and draw their baths is still common, especially among older men. But even some young men delight in telling stories about how they don’t even know how to use the microwave.

“Many husbands say, if you want to work outside the house, ‘It’s OK, as long as you finish everything that needs to be done inside the house,”’ said Masako Yuasa, 32, a working mother in Tokyo. “I have actually heard a young husband say, ‘It’s only natural that working mothers sleep less than working men.”’


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