By Barbara Lawrence
The unflattering terms many Japanese women use to describe their retired husbands, “Sodaigomi” or oversized garbage, and “nureochiba” or wet fallen leave (sic) (Star.com) serve as markers along our own road to retirement and suggest the need for alternative paths. For older Japanese, brought up to believe women were subservient to men, the husband’s retirement can be so difficult that experts estimate as many as 60% of wives of Japanese retirees suffer debilitating physical symptoms. These health problems, now known as “Retired Husband Syndrome” include stomach ulcers, slurring of speech, rashes around the eyes, growths in the throat, palpitations, tension headaches and depression (www.thestar.com) as well as “agitation, gas, bloating, muscle aches, and other symptoms of stress,” (Johnson, 1984, p. 542).
In 1991 Dr. Nobuo Kurokawa, a physician and leading Japanese expert on Retired Husband Syndrome (RHS) first named the syndrome. The illness has been particularly striking in Japan in part because of the differences in roles traditionally assigned to men and women, but also because Japan has the highest percentage of population in the world over 65 (Faiola, 2005, p. 1). Fully one-fifth of Japanese are now over 65, and between 2007 and 2009 almost seven million Japanese men are likely to retire. In Japan couples can expect to live for many years after retirement as the Japanese boast the longest lifespan on Earth. (Faiola, 2005, p.2). Yet 40% of wives of prospective retirees describe themselves as depressed by their husband’s imminent retirement.
RHS is exacerbated both by tradition and change. Traditional Japanese culture doesn't encourage people to talk openly about their problems; so many older women have few outlets through which to express their unhappiness. The next generation of Japanese, however, no longer expects parents to live with them so older couples spend more time with each other than they might have expected to in the past. Given this situation, symptoms of RHS are rising dramatically. Japanese television shows depict the drama of RHS (Japan-Guide.com), and the divorce rate of couples married for more than twenty years doubled between 1985 and 2000. In fact, the divorce rate of older couples is now the fastest growing of any cohort in the population.
Most men and women in Japan of the “Boomer” generation assumed that the man would work outside the home and that many of his activities and friendships would revolve around his work. As they and their careers matured, Japanese men would spend less and less time at home, and more time in work-related associations. Women, however, were expected and “trained” to expect that they would work for their husbands and children inside the home. Some women, before having children, may have established social and recreational ties outside their homes, but these weakened after they became mothers. As children grew up and left to establish their own homes, many older women in Japan again sought companionship and recreation with women friends, and nurtured these ties with energy and commitment. This activity outside their homes, however, rarely conflicted with caring for their husbands.
When Japanese men retire, they lose connection with people and activities, as well as with the primary source of approval and self-image that sustained them throughout their careers. A domain that may have included employees and opportunities for command suddenly evaporates and his home becomes the retiree’s castle. Like a king without a country, the retiree comes home to hold sway where he has previously not interfered. When husbands retire, the energy and assertiveness that served them well in the larger arena of work, is not likely to help them build a collegial relationship with their wives. Instead, too many Japanese men become demanding and intrude into the daily routines of housekeeping that their wives have perfected over decades, but not by helping with chores. Instead, they demand obedience, and become verbally and even physically abusive. As their self-esteem diminishes, these retirees may drink too much, and spend more and more time watching television. As they retreat into themselves, they may increasingly resent their wives’ ability to interact in a variety of relationships outside the house that includes shopkeepers, friends, and club mates.
RHS has been particularly striking in Japan, but Dr. Clifford Johnson, a psychologist in private practice in Boise, Idaho, writing in 1984, pointed out that a similar pattern of symptoms affected women in his practice whose husbands had retired. He wrote that few wives worked outside their homes and most sought their own sources of recreation and companionship while their husbands worked. Like Japanese wives, American homemakers gave up their outside recreation to care for children, but when children grew up and moved away, women again had time for activities and companionship outside their homes. When husbands retired, however, the quality of life for their wives deteriorated quickly. Johnson reports wives saying in desperation, “I’m going nuts,” ”I want to scream,” ”He is driving me crazy,” ”I’m nervous,” or ”I can’t sleep,” (Johnson, 1984, p. 542). Like Japanese retirees, American husbands forced themselves into places where their wives were used to having their own authority: the house, particularly the kitchen, and doing errands associated with housekeeping. When husbands took out their own feelings of loss by becoming depressed and insensitive or abusive, the relationship between the couple deteriorated to the point that the wife felt physically as well as emotionally and psychologically ill, and developed RHS.
The rapid escalation of RHS in Japan should inspire us to think about retirement, and working in retirement, in the United States. Though there are similarities between people in the same age group in Japan and in the United States, there are also significant differences. In the next six years, the number of workers who are older than fifty five is expected to escalate dramatically, but the US work force has one of the highest rates of participation by workers over sixty-five (Cohen, 2005, p. 139). In the US both men and women in the” Boomer” generation may have had fulfilling careers, so, as Abigail Trafford points out, it may be more accurate to label ”retirement malaise”; as “retired spouse syndrome or RSS,” (Trafford, 2005, p. 1).