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JAPAN: Wives Stash Cash to Freedom

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO , Mar 2 2006 (IPS) - Masami, 57, is waiting for the day when she can divorce her husband, a respected professor of medicine she married 32 years ago.

”I plan to divorce my husband when he retires so I can receive a part of his retirement package. The prospect of waiting a few more unhappy years to be free is no big deal because it would be stupid to leave without a stable financial backing for my old age,” says the smartly dressed woman.

Masami, who prefers that her last name not be used, recently sent off her daughter, the youngest of her three children, to pursue graduate studies in the Netherlands.

Masami’s story, according to gender experts, is not new in Japan and reflects age old patterns where women, traditionally forced into the role of homemakers, have over the years developed ingenious ways to stay financially independent.

The practice is so common that there is even a Japanese word for it, ‘hesokuri’ (close to the navel) which is symbolic of how vital it was for homemakers to stash away some cash for themselves.

”Japanese wives, especially the older generation that stayed home, have always saved for a rainy day. They put away a small amount of cash for themselves each month from the household income, mainly from the husband’s salary, to be able to buy expensive items for their personal use or for a more drastic step as a divorce,” says Sumiko Shimizu, who runs I-Josei, a grass roots lobby for gender equality.

A recent survey covering 500 homemakers by Sompo Japan DIY Life Insurance discovered that their hidden savings, accumulated over time, averaged Yen 4 million (34,000 US dollars)for homemakers in their 50s, nearly three times as much as the Yen 1.46 million (12,000 US dollars) for those in their 20s.

Stories told by the savers show that money was secreted into the lining of kimonos or buried under the floor in the kitchen – an area where husbands rarely entered.

And, as Masami’s plans illustrate, modern-day homemakers are also entitled to receive a portion of their husband’s retirement allowance, a major factor for security in old age when family responsibilities cease.

”Frankly, walking away with a part of my husband’s retirement does not demand much soul searching for me,” says Masami, explaining that she has spent the best years of her life cleaning, cooking and managing the household while her husband was free to pursue his career and gain personal satisfaction by climbing to the top.

”Naturally, I expect to share my husband’s retirement to compensate for the work I have done up to how. Now that my youngest child has left for Europe, I am free to do what I want at last,” she says.

Indeed, while divorce rates are miniscule in Japan – close to 270,000 cases in 2004 – there has been a rising trend among middle-aged couples or those married over 20 years.

Takayo Yamamoto, an expert on the rising economic power of women in Japan, explains that in this affluent society, more women are searching for personal fulfillment in the form of both material and personal self-expression.

”Gone are the days when Japanese women thought modesty and docility were important virtues. Today, the trend is living well and that means spending on products that make them look beautiful and leading lives without the pressure of traditional social constraints,” she explains.

The pattern is here to stay. Yamamoto’s research has shown that Japan’s baby boomers, women in their forties, are now among the nation’s leading spenders and play an important role in the national economy.

The rise of working women is another factor that contributes to economic power that is linked to more divorces as well as late marriages and poor birth rates – now down to 1.3 per woman in Japan.

The ministry of health and welfare reported that women comprise 30 percent of the workforce in large companies and the new trend is to allow this category, previously restricted to office helpers, slowly into the male-dominated management track.

Sumiko contends that as Japan’s seniority job system changes and men cannot rely on regular salaries, the old ”hesokuri” system will also change in that women will no longer be hiding their savings from their husbands and waiting for the day when they can leave with a major portion of his retirement allowance in their pockets.

”Women are doing the same thing (thinking about themselves), but this time openly and with a self-confidence they did not have in the old days,” Sumiko said.

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