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Japan's Husbands Learn to Be Loving

The National Chauvinistic Husband's Association is trying to change the way Japanese men treat their wives, showing them how to put quality into their marriages before it is too late. The issue is important in a country where many women are reluctant to marry and more are eager to divorce.

A group of Japanese men claim they have the key to better marriages.

Recently, they gathered in suits and ties outside a busy train station in Tokyo and chanted their "Three Principles of Love:" saying "sorry" without fear; saying "thank you" without hesitation; and saying "I love you" without shame. Calling themselves the National Chauvinistic Husband's Association, they say these declarations are what women want to hear.

The association's members believe that if men can say these words without hesitation, they will have better relationships with their wives. These husbands have good reason to be serious about their goal of teaching men to communicate better with their families. Japan's divorce rate has been soaring in recent years, with 70 percent of the splits initiated by unhappy wives.

The association's 54-year-old chairman, Shuichi Amano, founded it in 1999 after years of trouble in his own marriage. One evening he came home from work, at his usual late hour, and he asked his wife whether she thought it was odd that all the middle-aged men around him suddenly were getting divorced.

"It happened several years ago, when several of my friend's wives were divorcing them," said Amano. "And when I mentioned it, my wife sharply came back with: 'Well, I think you will be next.'"

Amano says her answer all but stopped his heart, then he broke out in a cold sweat. Her sharp tone told him his wife was serious.

After that initial shock, Amano reflected on his relationship with his wife and daughters.

At first, he rationalized that his job as a writer and editor for a publishing company kept him too busy. Eventually, Amano began to admit to himself that he was a typical chauvinist and did not communicate with his family.

His next, and hardest, step toward self-awareness came after many discussions with a few male friends, some already ex-husbands. It sank in that his behavior had been typical of Japan's "strong" husbands, those who communicate only three things to their wives - furo, meshi, neru - meaning bath, dinner and sleep.

His reflections led Amano to think about starting a program of self-improvement for other men in danger of becoming ex-husbands. He first put his energy into saving his own marriage.

"I changed my attitude and decided to communicate with my wife and three daughters," he said. "Instead of only saying food, bath, and sleep, I washed dishes and did such things as take the trash out. My wife says I've changed, and I am more sensitive. Furthermore, she smiles at me, which she never did before."

Amano was soon passing on what he learned to other men through the National Chauvinistic Husband's Association. The group's name shows that its members have been chauvinists - men who consider themselves superior to their wives - but are working together to reform.

The group developed 10 levels to grade members' relations with their wives. The first level asks is he still in love with his wife after three years of marriage? The second asks does he do a good job helping with housework? Number three is has he ever cheated on his wife, or has his wife ever caught him cheating?

As the ranks get higher, it gets tougher for these men, who have been brought up in Japan's male-dominated society. There is only one member who has attained level 10, the highest. He can tell his wife he loves her without embarrassment.

Amano has made it to level five, and can walk hand-in-hand with his wife.

Yoko Itamoto, a Tokyo marriage counselor, thinks Japanese men need to change their ways, because, she says, the biggest challenge facing the country is marriage.

Japanese women marry later than ever before - the average age of marriage is 27. Many never marry at all. Part of the reason, experts say, is that many Japanese women feel they get no support from their husbands. The divorce rate has doubled in four decades, with more than 260,000 divorces a year.

Itamoto says she finds more women now say men do not know how to communicate.

"The reason the men don't know how to communicate is that they do not have the experience of making relationships and communicating with others, and normally do not talk about their families," she said. "They have only been trained to achieve in the workplace and be loyal to the company. Because they don't know how to express themselves, they can't imagine how others feel, while women are the opposite."

Marriage - or the lack of it - has significant implications for all of Japan. The birth rate has fallen so low that the population is shrinking. The government worries there will not be enough young workers to provide for the growing number of elderly retirees.

Amano does not see a bright future for the country if the family structure does not change.

"If husbands will not change, the future will be very dark for Japan, so we are enticing men to join our group and learn to change their attitudes," he said. "Then the family will change and then Japan will change in a positive way."

His association is doing its bit to change attitudes. It has grown from its original two members to more than 650 men. Its leaders expect more than 3,000 members by the end of the year, as more men try to improve their marriages and avoid divorce.