The post-1945 Japanese population has demonstrated an enormous capacity for effective organization and hard work, a major factor contributing to Japan’s spectacular post-war economic success.
But it extracted a cost from Japanese family life, a mindset called the Nogi Syndrome and an attachment disorder called Retired Husband Syndrome is a widespread marital epidemic affecting more than half of older Japanese couples.
What is RHS? It seems that most older Japanese wives show serious signs of depression, rage, and even physical illness as their husband’s retirement date approaches near. Retired Husband Syndrome is one of the leading causes of divorce among older couples in Japan.
The symptoms include ulcers, rashes, irritability, mood disorders, and the recurring urge to defenestrate their husband (yes, I’m being serious). Wives cope by self-soothing with stuffed animals and nurturing crushes on teenage pop stars, and other unattainable Limerent objects.
How Did Japanese Wives Get That Way?
If you truly want to understand the Japanese Retired Husband Syndrome you have to look at the impact of losing WWII.
Part of the psychological aftermath of losing World War II was how Japanese men typically responded.
A culture of workaholism gripped the male survivors of WW II because the cultural guilt of having survived seemed to have required a symbolic sacrifice in kind from survivors.
This is called Nogi Syndrome.
The life and death of Nogi Maresuke is a perfect example of this syndrome and why it bears his name.
Nogi was a victim of survivor syndrome not once, but multiple times. His death was held as an example of moral idealism and his narrative was appropriated by the Japanese government to arouse feelings of purpose, patriotism, and loyalty in the period leading up to the Second World War.
The symbolic significance of Nogi’s and career can only be understood through the lens of his life and times. Nogi Maresuke saw the restoration of the Emperor and Japan’s incredibly rapid industrialization (Lifton, Shuichi & Reich, 1979).
This self-sacrificing work ethic was also vertically transmitted to the next generations as well. Many of Japan’s executives or “salarymen” often spend many years living largely apart from their families.
They are utterly devoted to their jobs, and their emotional relationship with their corporate employer runs deep as well.
…Countless Japanese have committed themselves to work as a form of living that may lead to death in order to justify their not having died when their friends and comrades did. Not a few…worked themselves to death in the process of rebuilding the nation, while feeling that their own lives were of little value in any other way. Stuart D. B.Picken
The Nogi Syndrome is defined by complete dedication to the notion of self-sacrifice for love of country. It closely resembles the ancient Roman virtue of Pietas.
Like Pietas, awareness of one’s personal honor is central to the Nogi mindset. Meritorious actions that benefit the Emperor and the State must be absolute, and unmitigated by our own personal preferences or desires.
It would be a mistake to think that The Nogi Syndrome would fade in peacetime.
Rebuilding Japan from the ashes was a central Guy Code preoccupation. All Guy Codesare culture-bound to an extreme degree.
And even though Japanese men are now business executives and not military officers, their attitudes towards themselves and their place in corporate culture illustrate how old ideas evolve into new forms of expression that are not always predictable.
Getting Re-Acquainted With Your Retired Husband
But RHS has a predictable trajectory. The problem of RHS occurs as many couples discover they are virtual strangers to one another. Japanese marriage counselors treating RHS advise couples to take it slow.
More time together will indeed happen, but the quality of the time is important. Think day trips instead of cruises for now.
Relationship experts say that celebratory cruises or long holidays can have an unfortunate negative impact on many Japanse retiree marriages.
RHS author Sayoko Nishida reports that:
“Disagreements between the spouses often deepen when they spend a lot of time together in a foreign setting. Husbands pay the price for placing more importance on their jobs than their wives.” Sayoko Nishida.
Once their husbands are retired, many Japanese wives resent how little their husbands contribute to the running of the household. They often complain that they are unable to persuade their husbands to accept influence from them.
Japanese people also tend to live longer. When a man retires at 65 the marriage may endure for another quarter-century or more. The question for these women is this… are they expected to endorse marriage longevity by trading emotional disconnection for convenience?
Research On Retired Husband Syndrome
One of the perils of reading old research is that it’s…well…old.
During the dog days of summer in 1980, five hundred Japanese salarymen were interviewed. They were asked how much they valued and spent their leisure time. Their answers mapped the cultural impact of the Nogi Syndrome on several generations of Japanese businessmen, at that point in time.
Group A (aged 46-54 in 1980…now age 86 to 94) showed clearest effects of the Nogi Syndrome. They worked hard and had a strong sense of themselves as heads of their families. Only about 30% often had dinner at home, and most worked later on Fridays. ‘Late’ was considered to be after 11.00 p.m. They estimated that they had less than four free hours a day. These they used for study and/or exercise to keep themselves in good mental and physical condition. It’s also reasonable to posit that this generation had the greatest degree of Nogi Syndrome survivor guilt.
Group B (aged 36 to 45 in 1980…now age 76 to 85). This is the “interrupted childhood” generation. By that I mean the war was their childhood experience. Interestingly enough this generation spent what one researcher called “a great deal of time at home playing with their children.” To be specific, 30% if this generation of salarymen considered 10.00 p.m. as ‘late’ and only around 14% worked late on Fridays.
Group C (aged 35 and under in 1980… now age 75 and under). This is the post-war generation of salarymen. In 1980, they complained that they had too little free time in which to do the things they wanted to do. This is the generation currently retiring. Around 20% of them worked late on Friday but did have dinner at home regularly. They considered 11.00 p.m. to be late. They also complained that they only had an average of 5 free hours daily.
Back in the early ’80s, These findings were often presented as evidence that Nogi Syndrome was fading away in Japanese culture.
They were wrong.
As Japan pursued economic success, in less than a decade (1989), a new word was invented in the Japanese language… karoshi.
The Karoshi are those who die unexpectedly of overwork. During the Japanese economic success of the early 1980s, and during the 1991 recession, the virtue of work was again emphasized, and a Nogi Syndrome and Retired Husband Syndrome echo-boom emerged in the large post-war generation that is retiring now.
Retired Husband Syndrome and Gray Divorce in Japan
The divorce rate in Japan has risen nearly 27% over the last decade according to the Japanese Ministry of Health.
More recent research has found that Retired Husband Syndrome’s impact on employed Japanese women is even greater (Marco & Brunello, 2014).
They are already stressed by their career demands and are even less accommodating to additional requests by their newly retired husbands than stay-at-home wives.
This result casts some doubts on the early idea that low female labor force participation would be a key factor in spreading RHS in Japanese family life.
But new research tells us that, all things being equal (ceteris paribus), the opposite appears to be true.
Rising participation of Japanese women in the workforce might actually be encouraging even more resentment, increasing the intensity and duration of the RHD syndrome in Modern Japan.
We also now know extended families with elderly live-in parents, and financial insecurity can also be additional aggravating factors.
Retired Husband Syndrome and Mental Health in Japan
The Japanese divorce rate has been steadily ticking upward. The number of divorces among couples in Japan who were married for 20 years or more hit 42,000 in 2004. That was double the 1985 rate. Divorces among those married for over 30 years quadrupled during that same period.
The fact that Japan has economically recovered from losing WWII obscures the fact that it has extracted an emotional cost on Japanese marriages.
Interestingly, the impact on wives is so pronounced, that research has tended to hyper-focus on them.
However, I wonder about the mental health of retiring husbands, and how marital interactions between a couple as they move through time can either promote or curb the onset of RHS symptoms in retirement. More research on a view of self, and marital dynamics preceding the onset of Retired Husband Syndrome is sorely needed.
From a science-based couples therapy lens, it’s my hope that as more “salarymen” are expected to retire in Japan in the next five years than at any prior time in history, more research will lead to better couples therapy in Japan.
Because CTI is an international couples therapy practice, it’s not enough that we speak 11 languages fluently. We also have to stay on top of international research and cultural forces as well, particularly in conducting our online couples therapy.
And hopefully, this will help retiring couples, who have sacrificed so much, to live happier and more fulfilling lives.
Don’t Be Miserable in Retirement…
Kramer, Irving: Motivation: A Study of Japanese Industrial Workers Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 1975, pp.1-89 Naruse, Takeo: “Are the Japanese Workaholics?” Look Japan, July 10, 1979, pp. 6-7
The Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations. “Survey of Workers about Retirement”, August 29 – September 4, 1981, pp. 27-33 The Present State of National Public Opinion Surveys. Office of the Prime Minister – Cabinet Secretary’s Official Report, 1979)
Lifton, R.J. with Kato Shuichi and Reich, Michael R. Six Lives Six Deaths New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.
Marco B., Brunello G., (2014) Pappa Ante Portas: The Retired Husband Syndrome in Japan IZA DP No. 8350.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.