- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

TOKYO | Faced with a mounting divorce rate, Japanese men are going to extremes to prove they love their wives — shouting “I love you” from the depths of cabbage patches and Tokyo parks.

Kiyotaka Yamana said the shout-outs are a way for emotionally reserved Japanese to express their feelings and save their troubled marriages.

Mr. Yamana is secretary general of the Japan Aisaika Organization (JAO), an organization that aims to improve Japan’s troubled approach to marriage — often regarded here more for status than as a relationship. In Japanese, the word “Aisaika” means “devoted husband.”

Mr. Yamana said he never questioned his all-work, no-play lifestyle until one day when his wife vented her frustrations by saying, “You never took me seriously.” Mr. Yamana made up his mind to divorce his wife, but arriving home, was shocked to find that she had already left.

His marital problems, he said, were caused mainly by a lack of communication.

In Japan, expressing love and appreciation is uncommon, especially among men. In the majority of marriages, husbands are the breadwinners, while wives stay home.

But men and women are no longer accepting remaining married and unhappy. The number of divorces rose an astonishing 73 percent from 1985 to 2002, reaching nearly 300,000, according to government reports. Though the number slowly decreased after 2002, in-home separations remain common. Many couples seem to avoid divorce for economic reasons, for the sake of their children, or to save face.

Mr. Yamana founded the JAO in 2004, and located its headquarters in Tsumagoi Village, which means “missing one’s wife.” Known for its picturesque landscape and tasty cabbages, it was there, ironically, at the cottage of a friend, that Mr. Yamana had originally decided to divorce his wife.

In September 2006, the JAO and the village hosted an event called “Shout Your Love From the Middle of a Cabbage Patch,” in which dozens of men, one by one, said loudly, “I love you!” or “Thank you!” to their wives: some for the first time. Some of their spouses were in tears.

For many participants, shouting “I love you” was an important first step.

One the shouters was village Mayor Sakae Kumagawa. Married for 45 years, he had rarely said to his wife, “I love you,” he confessed.

“If you say it out loud, that makes you feel responsible for it. I think that’s pretty good,” he said with a beaming smile. The event “has changed my whole attitude on life.”

The JAO also declared Jan. 31 “Beloved Wives Day.” On that day, a man is supposed to tell his wife how much he appreciates her for all that she does every day.

It provided an alternative to Valentine’s Day, when, unlike the practice in the West, women are expected to buy chocolate for men. Men have a chance to reciprocate during White Day on March 14, which is less popular.

The JAO encourages husbands to follow five golden rules on Beloved Wives Day, including getting home early — which in Japan means by 8 p.m. — calling wives by their name rather than the traditional “Mother,” and looking them in the eyes.

Mr. Yamana also suggested that all the couples hug each other at 8:09 p.m. on that day. The time, read as “8-9” in Japanese, sounds like “hug.”

Moreover, recently, the JAO and Hibiya Kadan Floral Co. organized an event called “Shout Your Love From the Middle of Hibiya Park” in Tokyo. About 40 people, mostly businessmen in dark suits, shouted, “I love you,” or “Thank you very much for cooking a wonderful meal every day” to their wives.

Yuko Obuchi, minister of state for social affairs and gender equality, stopped by, while the event was broadcast on national networks.

Many Japanese men are still too proud or embarrassed to express their love, said participants.

“If I said to my wife, ‘I love you,’ she would think I go nuts,” said one businessman in his late 40s, who has been married for about 20 years and asked that his name not be used.

Mr. Yamana said, “I was not able to communicate with my wife in my previous marriage, either.”

Soon after his divorce, Mr. Yamana happened to reunite with an old acquaintance, Kimiko, an instructor of business revitalization programs. While he was going to her lectures and discussing his problems, her words gave him a chance to reinvent himself, he recalled.

“She said, ‘You have talent.’”

“It was nothing romantic at first,” Kimiko said. “Listening to what he said, I came to believe he had the power to change the world,” said Kimiko, now his wife of seven years.

A few years into their marriage, Mr. Yamana recalled that he truly felt a sense of happiness, and willingly spent more time at home.

Part of the JAO’s purpose is to let other men experience the joy that Mr. Yamana found in marriage, he said, and that requires changing attitudes toward work. In Japan, many workers are pressured to put their companies first and demonstrate their loyalty by working long hours.

“Japanese men place a high value on which company or organization they work for,” explained Mr. Yamana, adding that such status also matters to some women looking for a husband. “If they get rid of that culture, almost everyone could become a devoted husband.”

Mr. Yamana has greater social goals in mind.

“Husbands who take great care of their wives seem to care about those around them. So if there are more devoted husbands on earth, the world would become more peaceful,” he said.

JAO members’ efforts and Mr. Yamana’s own testimony have inspired others to take up his cause. After reading a newspaper article in 2005 about what he had to go through, one man facing similar problems suddenly called him early one morning.

“I am a 64-year-old former policeman. My wife dumped me soon after I retired at 60,” Mr. Yamana recalled him saying. “I was reading the article in tears and underlined your comments five times. You made me finally realize how important it is to care about a wife.”

Since then, said Mr. Yamana, the caller “has been an instructor on how to avoid divorce.”

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