Mitsutoshi Fukatsu has been with his wife for three decades, but their lives have grown apart. As a busy station master in central Japan, he returned home only to eat, bathe and sleep.
Now with retirement looming, the 56-year-old wants to get to know his wife better.
He's helping with chores, calls his wife by her name instead of just grunting and recently learned a new phrase: "I love you."
Fukatsu is one of a small but growing group of men who took part in Japan's second annual "Beloved Wives Day" on yesterday in hopes of salvaging their marriages by doing something unusual -- paying attention to their wives.
"For about a year now, I've been starting to help out with the housework," Fukatsu said. "I can't stay at my company for ever. I have to return home. But right now, I don't feel like I have a place there."
Last year, a new group for men called the Japan Adoring Husbands Association designated Jan. 31 as a day for husbands to return home at the unusually early hour of 8pm, look into their wife's eyes, and say "Thank you."
The movement, though small -- about 230 people have posted messages on the group's Web page about this year's event -- is quite a change for a generation of Japan-ese men who wer taught to consider their companies first and their wives much later.
The village where the association is based held a renewal of vows ceremony yesterday for a local 50-something couple and gave prizes to three men as the best "doting husbands" -- before sending them home to spend some quality time with their beloved.
The reasons for the movement are many.
This year, the first members of Japan's postwar baby boom generation will reach 60 and retire, meaning an unprecedented number of men will have to abandon their home-away-from-home -- the all-consuming office -- and spend more time with their spouses.
There are financial reasons as well. An impending law change that gives housewives a bigger share of their spouse's pension could trigger a surge in divorces among older couples, as women frustrated with years of neglect take the money and run.
These are tough times for Japanese marriages.
Japan's divorce rate is a relatively low 2.08 per 1,000 couples, but the number of splits has increased more than 60 percent since 1985 to 261,917 in 2005, according to government statistics.
Older couples are prime movers in the trend. Divorce among those married for more than 20 years has grown the fastest, nearly doubling since 1985 to more than 40,000 couples in 2005 -- with separation more likely to be initiated by women, leaving their former husbands to face a lonely old age in a country where the average male lifespan is over 78, one of the world's longest.
"Many older married women have built up frustration over the course of their marriage. Once children become independent and wives get more free time, they start wondering: `Am I happy with this life?'" Atsuko Okano, a Tokyo-based divorce counselor, writes on her Web site.
Adoring Husbands Association member Sadao Ito, 67, wishes he had been more sensitive to his wife's feelings. She left him seven years ago, just as he was facing retirement from a busy office job in the northern city of Sendai.
"She took care of me so well. She made me breakfast every day and did all the housework. But I never did anything," he said.
Ito now acts as a volunteer adviser to the association, which was founded in 2005 in the village of Tsumagoi, north of Tokyo. He often gives the local chapter's 20 members advice on how to avoid his mistakes.
"Repent, repent, repent. That's what I do every day," Ito said."
The group held "Beloved Wives Day" last year for members, but opened it this year to a nationwide audience for the first time.
Tsumagoi, whose name sounds like the words "wife love" in Japanese, has also recently started to market itself as a romantic destination for married couples.
Last year, it invited couples to an event called "Shout Your Love from the Middle of a Cabbage Patch," where husbands took turns hollering romantic messages against a backdrop of Tsumagoi's wide-open fields.
That was where the soon-to-retire Fukatsu said "I love you" to his wife -- for the first time.
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