THERESA came back to Japan for love. In some ways, it was a big mistake.
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.
In Theresa's case, her husband offered no such powers. Sitting at the kitchen table at Friendship Asia House Cosmos, as the shelter in Kisarazu is known, she says that ''irresponsibility'' ultimately destroyed her marriage.
Her husband spent most of his earnings on gambling and friends, Theresa says, and gave her too little money to feed herself and their three daughters.
Her complaints brought anger and violence, she says. ''The time will come that he will change,'' she thought. But he did not, and instead she left him last November after seven years of marriage. Municipal workers in Tokyo referred her to Cosmos, which took her in.
Frank Ocampo, a Filipino social worker at Cosmos, says the shelter is receiving two or three calls a day from Asian women with stories similar to Theresa's. ''A typical call is from a wife who has been silent for a long time. Many times there has been physical abuse. Because they don't know where to go they have just remained in the house.''
A shelter in Yokohama, on the other side of Tokyo, reports that it is receiving fewer calls from Asian women fleeing forced prostitution. But ''the number of women fleeing marriages is increasing,'' says Masako Omori, who works at the shelter.
Mr. Ocampo and Cosmos founder Misao Hanazaki provide counseling, mediate between spouses, and put Asian wives in touch with other women.
International marriages are sometimes built ''on very weak foundations,'' Ocampo says. ''The woman wants to extend her visa, and the man wants a sexual partner. Even from the start the purpose is a problem.''
These problems can be compounded by cultural and linguistic differences. ''International marriages are difficult,'' Ms. Matsuda says. ''Particularly in the cases we see, when they cannot even communicate in the same language. Without us they cannot even talk - it's a very strange situation.''
While marriages between Japanese men and Chinese, Filipina, and Thai women floated between 12,000 and 13,000 from 1992 to 1994, the number of divorces in this group rose from 2,322 in 1992 to 2,843 in 1994 - an increase of 22 percent. The Health and Welfare Ministry says it has no way of determining the divorce rates.
One of the most immediate problems faced by foreign wives who leave their Japanese husbands is their immigration status.
Japanese immigration authorities issue limited spouse visas, so a woman needs her husband's cooperation in extending or renewing a visa. A divorce means the loss of a sponsor.
Many Asian women say they want to work and to educate their children in Japan. Even if the children are Japanese citizens, there is no guarantee their mother will be allowed to remain in the country once a spouse visa expires.
''We have been assured by Japanese immigration authorities that these human factors are always taken into consideration,'' says a source in the Philippine government, who requests anonymity. But Japanese authorities, he says, have expelled divorced women whose children have not started school or who cannot demonstrate an ability to support themselves.
It is not only at the level of visas that the problems of Asian women intersect with affairs of state. Many observers have noted the contradictions Japan has faced as it struggles to preserve homogeneity and at the same time be a welcome partner and leader to other Asian countries.
Cosmos founder Hanazaki often speaks about the need to fight anti-Asian bigotry in Japan: ''The most important thing is to remove Japanese people's prejudice against Asian women.''