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Failed Foreign Marriages In Japan: Boom to Bust?


By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1996


THERESA came back to Japan for love. In some ways, it was a big mistake.

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She first came to Japan in 1986, part of the exodus of Filipinas who leave in search of higher-paying jobs abroad. She spent two years working and saved enough money to buy her parents land for a house. She returned home in 1988 with plans to open a small business. Then her Japanese boyfriend came to the Philippines and asked her to marry him.

''He seemed so tender and so earnest,'' she says. But that was 1988. Today she is telling her story in a women's shelter in this industrial suburb of Tokyo, asking that her real name not be used. She doesn't want her husband to know where she is. Theresa's experience is one indication that a ''foreign-marriage boom'' of the late 1980s, which saw record numbers of Japanese men marrying non-Japanese Asians, is resulting in a rising number of international divorces, at least among certain nationalities. An increasing number of Asian wives of Japanese are turning to women's shelters for support, according to workers at two of Japan's seven privately run shelters.

Statistics from Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry show that the number of divorces between Japanese men and Chinese, Filipina, and Thai women has risen 22 percent from 1992 to 1994. At the same time, the number of marriages involving those nationalities has more or less stabilized.

Culture, language barriers

It may be that many people, pulled along by the ''boom,'' entered international marriages without adequately considering the difficulty of surmounting cultural and linguistic barriers. Or divorces may provide evidence, on a personal level, of the lingering contempt between Japanese and their Asian neighbors.

In the early 1970s, Japanese men started to outnumber Japanese women entering international marriages. By 1990, roughly 25,000 Japanese were marrying foreigners every year, with Japanese grooms outnumbering brides by at least 3 to 1.

Lonely farmers drove the early stages of the foreign-marriage boom. Local officials encouraged single males to look abroad for wives, since Japanese women were rejecting the drudgery and servitude of agricultural life.

Yuuichi Tan has been brokering international marriages in the small northern city of Shinjo for eight years. He says he has matched more than 100 Japanese farmers with Chinese, South Korean, and Filipina women. Business prospects remain bright, he says, counting some 2,300 bachelors in the farming towns around Shinjo. ''When the first South Korean wife arrived here about 10 years ago, she drew the attention of the whole community,'' Mr. Tan recalls in a telephone interview. ''But ... over the years, the local Japanese got to know that Asian wives were not different from ordinary Japanese wives.''

Men living in cities also began looking overseas for lifelong companions. Japan has more women than men, but they are increasingly marrying later or not at all.

Some Japanese women are also unwilling to perform traditional roles. ''Japanese women are becoming very strong, so [men] look for more docile women'' in Asia, says Mizuho Matsuda, director of a church- and city-backed shelter for Asian women in Tokyo called HELP. She insists that the stereotype of the docile Asian woman is flawed and says such misperceptions account for some of the breakups.

Indeed, some Asian women marry Japanese men thinking they will be able to rule their households. Japanese housewives are popularly known as ''ministers of finance,'' since they frequently control the family funds.