They are the new darlings of the Japanese media. Prime-time dramas portray their lives. Morning talk-show hosts ponder their travails. Magazines depict them striding confidently into the future.
They’re called the “batsu-ichi” - meaning people with one strike against them, or, in more common parlance, the divorced. And their swelling ranks are breaking down some Japanese cultural taboos that have held sway for centuries.
Divorces in Japan have more than doubled, from just over 95,000 in 1970 to 206,955 in 1996, according to health ministry statistics. One in three Japanese marriages now ends in divorce.
Atsuko Okano was in one of those failed marriages.
Three years ago, she found herself alone in her thirties, with children to raise and a future full of question marks and social stigma. But she also saw an opening - and became a consultant helping people like herself.
“My husband was cheating on me,” she recalls. “I did everything to bring him back to me but it didn’t work, so I dumped him.”
Such frankness is a major characteristic of Japan’s recently divorced - and a striking break with the past.
Divorced people - particularly women - have long been stigmatized in Japan, where self-sacrifice and family stability are cherished ideals.
In the past, bored housewives remained bored. Philandering husbands philandered with impunity. The security of the family unit took precedence.
Now, young Japanese are increasingly choosing satisfaction in life over the demands of tradition, and more women are financially independent.
As a result, Japanese divorce rates are soaring.
Experts attribute this to the erosion of a longstanding double standard that granted divorced men respectability, but branded divorced women as damaged goods.
Over the past decade, growing numbers of highly educated and successful professional women have challenged that assumption by leaving unhappy marriages and braving the taboo of divorce.
The majority of divorce proceedings now are initiated by women, and statistics suggest that Japanese women are becoming more cautious about marriage in general.
The average age for marriage in Japan has risen from 26.1 in 1970 to 28.7 in 1996. The average age for remarriage among women jumped from 33.2 to 37 in the same period.
Arranged marriages have become less common as young people make their own choices.
“If they make mistakes, they feel confident they can start again,” said Yoriko Meguro, a professor at Tokyo’s prestigious Sophia University.
Okano’s “Fresh Start Club” advises divorced men and women on how to deal with everything from single parenthood to the legal intricacies of untying the knot.
Its 500 members get together at “Batsu-ichi” parties to snap up canapes and sip cocktails while they chat about their children or jobs.
“They rarely mull around complaining about their past spouses,” Okano said. “The club is about taking a positive attitude to the future.”
The media also is propagating the divorced person’s new image.
One of the media sensations of 1997 was the divorce of Japanese pop-superstar Seiko Matsuda. Instead of ending her already fading career - it resurrected her popularity.
A popular TV drama even parodies the new openness and solidarity of the batsu-ichi. Wherever the forlorn - and recently divorced - protagonist goes, he is ambushed by a drove of divorced colleagues who bombard him with invitations to fishing trips and barbecues.
Professor Meguro said she believes the new trend is positive. “This has really helped change the image of divorce in Japan. Society is coming around to the idea that people have good reasons to get divorced.”