Dozens of men stood side by side in a cabbage patch in Tsumagoi, 90 miles northwest of the capital. It was "Shout Your Love From the Middle of a Cabbage Patch" Day, and participants on the balmy day last fall went down the row yelling, "I love you!" or "Thank you!," trying earnestly to say the words to their wives – some for the first time. Most of their spouses stood in the field, watching. Some were in tears.
These couples were participating in an event created by Kiyotaka Yamana, founder of the Japan Aisaika ("Devoted Husband") Organization. His goal is to help improve Japan's troubled approach to marriage – often regarded more as a status than as a relationship – by teaching men to appreciate their wives and express their feelings.
In Japan, expressing love and appreciation is uncommon, especially among men. Even Valentine's Day is a time for women to give men gifts. In the majority of marriages, husbands are the breadwinners; wives, the homemakers. But that doesn't sit well in a rapidly changing Japan: The number of divorces rose 73 percent from 1985 to 2002, to reach 289,836, according to government reports. Though the number has slowly decreased since then, in-home separations remain common in a country that has few marriage counselors.
"If I said to my wife, 'I love you,' she would think I'm crazy," says Hiroto, who has been married for 20 years and asked that his last name not be used.
Yamama set up the JAO in 2004 to create opportunities for men like Hiroto to show wives their appreciation. He established its headquarters in Tsumagoi, where he and his friends spend weekends, because its name means "missing one's wife." Today the group has 150 members.
For many participants, shouting "I love you" in a cabbage patch was an important first step.
Many local villagers showed up for the affair. They'd been skeptical when it began in 2006, but became such enthusiasts that, last year, they offered to help plan it. Local officials had backed the event because the financially strapped village needed tourists and media attention. Many even agreed to participate, at Yamana's urging.
Like most of his colleagues, policymaker Motoyoshi Hashizume says he rarely expressed his love to his wife, Tomoko, in their 21 years of marriage. But since the 2006 shout-out, he continues, "I more often call her by name and appreciate what my wife has been doing."
Jan. 31: 'Beloved Wives Day'
In 2006, the JAO declared Jan. 31 "Beloved Wives Day," during which a man is supposed to tell his wife how much he appreciates her for all that she does every day for him and their family. (The date, read as "1-3-1" in Japanese, sounds like "aisai," which means "beloved wife.") It provided an alternative to Valentine's Day, when women are expected to buy chocolate for men. Men have a chance to reciprocate on White Day, exactly one month later on March 14, but this tradition is less popular.
JAO encourages husbands to follow five golden rules on Beloved Wives Day, including getting home early (by 8 p.m.), calling wives by their name rather than the traditional "Mother," and looking them in the eyes.
Inspired by his own marriage
Before creating JAO, Yamana was a stereotypical middle-aged workaholic who gave little thought to his family. Many employees in Japan are pressured to put their companies first and demonstrate their loyalty by working long hours.
After eight years of marriage, in 2002, Yamana decided to get a divorce. Arriving home to break the news, he was shocked to find his wife and child had already left.
Later that year, Yamana happened to reunite with an old acquaintance, Kimiko, who is now his wife of six years. A few years into their marriage, Yamana realized he was happy, and willingly spending more time at home.
Part of JAO's purpose is to let other men experience the joy that he found in marriage, says Yamana, and that requires changing attitudes toward work. "Japanese men place a high value on which company or organization they work for," Yamana explains, adding that such status also matters to some women looking for a husband. "If they get rid of that culture, almost everyone could become a devoted husband."
Ms. Tsutsumi, the sociologist, argues that economic parity between the genders would better encourage men to respect their wives. "It would be best to create a society where full-time housewives are no longer needed," she says. "It is far more important to be economically equal" than to nurture devoted husbands.
But Yamana has greater social goals in mind: "Husbands who take great care of their wife seem to care about those around them. So if there are more devoted husbands on earth, the world would become more peaceful."
The eager husband's efforts and own testimony have inspired others to take up his cause. After reading a newspaper article in 2005 about Yamana's life, a man facing similar problems called him early one morning. "I was reading the article in tears and underlined your comments five times. You made me finally realize how important it is to care about a wife," Yamana recalls him saying. The caller, whose wife had left him four years earlier, has since become an instructor on how to avoid divorce, says Yamana.