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Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010

BIG IN JAPAN

Marriage: A royal pain in the heart


Some outmoded institutions live on as anachronisms because enduring qualities in them continue to appeal to people. Royalty is one example. Marriage is another. Royal marriage? Well, naturally.

Royalty survives here and there as pageantry and as a reminder, always timely, that the present was shaped by a very different past. Marriage, despite abundant, mounting, universally acknowledged evidence to the contrary, endures as a symbol — the symbol — of domestic bliss.

Last month, Britain's Prince William and his girlfriend Kate Middleton announced their engagement. Who first dubbed it "the marriage of the century?" It doesn't matter. That's what an enchanted world immediately and unanimously agreed it will be, and maybe even the London students whose rousing protest against jacked-up university fees engulfed Prince Charles' limousine two weeks ago would not have caviled.

Coincidentally or otherwise, "The Marriage of the Century" was the title of a story in Shukan Gendai earlier this month — not about Will and Kate but about Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. The subhead reads, "Japan's happiest day." Has Japan really never been as happy as it was on April 10, 1959, when their majesties wed?

Granted, it was a happy occasion. Several factors made it so. The couple's tennis court romance was endearing, the bride's status as a commoner rendered it historically and socially significant, and a wonderful new medium called television beamed the nuptials into living rooms nationwide, which must have aroused emotions scarcely recoverable today. Then of course there's the heartwarming image of the Emperor and Empress now, at 76 years of age, looking back together on a long life of marital concord: living proof that, however rare, it is at least possible.

Two other royal "marriages of the century" turned out less fortunately. William's parents, Charles and Diana, fell rather sordidly out of love long before Diana's tragic death in 1997. And Princess Masako has spent most of her marriage to Crown Prince Naruhito battling depression.

No matter. Now it's Will and Kate's turn to represent Eternal Wedded Bliss for us, and to make their happiness our own. It's the role we wrote for them. Their place in history and in our hearts will depend on how faithfully they play it.

They must succeed where, off-stage, the uncrowned multitudes are failing. In Japan, the marriage scene is especially cheerless. Lifetime celibacy is rising, one-quarter to one-third of all marriages end in divorce, and extra-marital affairs are seen as offering the fullest sexual satisfaction — not only for men, as has long been the case, but, increasingly, for women.

We gather as much from a Shukan Post survey this month of 3,000 married women regarding their sex lives. Question 1: "How often do you have sex with your husband?" Never, say 21.9 percent. Question 4: "Is sex with your husband pleasurable or painful?" Very painful, say 15.2 percent. Very pleasurable, say 11.4 percent. Kind of pleasurable: 42.4 percent. Kind of painful: 31 percent.

A woman named Emi seems to speak for many. "My husband," she says, "thinks of me as the children's mother, plus his mother. When you think of a woman as your mother, you don't make sexual advances to her. The atmosphere just isn't right."

Writing in Sapio, journalist Sanae Kameyama refers to a poll 10 years ago showing 80 percent of married women wanting to have affairs, though only 20 percent actually did. Now, she reckons, probably 40 percent do. 29.6 percent, says Shukan Post. Either way, the smoldering discontent behind the domestic facade is plain. Two circumstances heighten it: economic hardship, which sharpens tensions and tempers, and the related fact that more women are working.

Kameyama quotes a woman she describes as typical: "When my youngest child started elementary school, I took a part-time job. At work I met a man my age, a full-time employee. I fell in love with him. It's been two years now. We get together once or twice a month. I don't want to break up my family, but if I lose him, I'm no longer a woman."

The fatal flaw in romantic marriage is that the overwhelming feelings on which it is based seem eternal at the time but rarely are. Aging, financial struggles, domestic drudgery, parental responsibilities, personal quirks and imperfections wear it down. The result is what Sapio describes as the flourishing "furin business." Furin means infidelity, and the businesses that feed on it are among the few bright spots in a listless economy. They include private detective agencies, aribaiya (fabricators of alibis), wakaresaseya (literally "breaker-uppers," whose asset is enough personal charm to attract a stray love object away from a client's spouse or partner), and so on. None of this is new, Sapio says, but the current stresses and strains, economic and otherwise, are boosting business remarkably.

That's life; that's marriage. Here's to Will and Kate. May they defeat the odds. May they be all their lives what they are now; what the world so desperately and touchingly wants them to be.



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