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Are you experiencing retired husband syndrome?


by Paul Kenyon Reporter, Japan:

In Japan it is estimated that 60 per cent of older women have a common problem – their husbands. Having spent years “married to their jobs”, retired men are having an extraordinary effect on the health of their partners.

Takako Terakawa shares her cramped, two-room flat in Osaka with a cat the size of a small child, 400 teddy bears and her husband.{{more}}

The bears are neatly stored, and filed according to colour and size, in a cabinet in her bedroom.

She brings them out to inspect and groom them each day.

As she does so, her whole body relaxes.

This seems to be what she lives for.

The bears are a replacement for her husband.

Drifting apart

Mrs Terakawa suffers from Retired Husband Syndrome (RHS), an illness born of a particular set of social conditions.

Women brought up during the 50s and 60s – the baby-boomer generation – are sometimes seen as a commodity by their husbands, someone to do the housework and look after the children.

Their husbands may be “salarymen” or white collar workers, who leave home in the early hours, and return merely to sleep.

These couples can gradually drift apart, carving out separate lives for themselves.

Then, when the husband approaches 60 – the national retirement age in Japan – the wife gradually realises she is going to be thrust into the permanent company of a man who has grown to be a stranger.

It is at this point that wives in Japan have started becoming ill, showing signs of both depression and physical illness.

“When I thought about my husband being at home, I developed rashes on my body and had stomach ache,” admits Mrs Terakawa.

“On occasions I would throw up after I had eaten. Sometimes just being in the same room as him made me physically sick.”

The syndrome was discovered by Dr Nobuo Kurokawa who, over the past 10 years, has been treating a steady flow of Japanese women of a certain age with the same symptoms, including depression, skin rashes, ulcers, asthma and high blood pressure.

Dr Kurokawa, who has a surgery in Osaka, believes that 60 per cent of older women are affected by RHS and says that if it is ignored, the symptoms will just get worse.

“If the husband doesn’t try to understand, the illness becomes incurable,” he says.

Laws of separation In the West, of course, when relations have sunk to such a low, divorce would be a way out.

But in Japan, particularly among this generation, it is far less culturally acceptable. Not only that, but a divorced wife has no rights to her husband’s pension and would usually be unable to survive financially should they decide to part ways.

A change in Japanese divorce law (giving wives a share of their husband’s pension) is scheduled for early 2007, but for people like Mrs Terakawa and the others we met in Japan suffering from RHS, they will not be taking that route.

This is largely because the syndrome has a strange twist at its core.

Many women suffering from it actually want to keep their husbands.

Stranger still, the husbands are completely unaware that they are part of the problem.

Hidden emotion

One of the other sufferers we met was Yukie Aoyama.

Her escape from her husband came in the form of an obsession over young pop star Kiyoshi Hikawa.

Her walls are plastered with his image and her diary is organised around his appearances.

She sees her husband, a salaryman working away, just once a month – and then just for a few hours.

We met her husband during one of his visits home.

I had imagined a monster, but he was a small, timid man who was genuinely completely taken aback when I suggested his wife might be suffering from RHS.

She had never had the nerve to tell him.

I asked him what he would do if his wife decided to leave him.

“It never occurred to me, but I think I would be in trouble,” he said.

“I am getting old. If my wife asked me to live alone I would fall apart… I am not strong enough. Our generation is not good at expressing feelings.”

National conversation

What really surprised me is that I thought RHS would be something talked about in hushed tones at pensioners’ clubs.

But, it is actually the subject of discussion between young people on the streets of Tokyo who are determined to learn from the mistakes of previous generations.

Within 10 years, a quarter of Japanese will be over 65.

Coupled with the fact that life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world – 81 years – it has become a serious talking point.

The syndrome has featured in TV debates and is discussed widely in the newspapers.

The question is, now that we know the symptoms, how long will it be before Western women of a certain age start suffering from RHS too?