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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Divorce after death

Apr. 11, 2017

Growing numbers of Japanese are officially breaking up with their in-laws after their spouse dies. It's called "divorce after death".

Such cases have increased by one and a half times over the past decade. 2,783 cases were reported last fiscal year, the majority of them filed by women.

Japanese law historically stated that a woman became a member of her husband's family after marriage. This system was abolished after World War 2.

Today, a woman basically has no legal obligation to support her husband's family after his death. However, she's still legally connected to the family.

Recently, some people are choosing to take steps to officially end this relationship. We look at why some Japanese women are seeking to divorce their in-laws.

One woman decided to end her relationship with her in-laws after her husband's death. She submitted documents to make it official.

She began living with her in-laws as her husband inherited the family business. She was expected to support them as well as the business in many ways.

However, after her husband died from cancer she started reconsidering her role in the family. She took over the business, while also raising her two children and doing all of the housework herself.

The woman says her mother-in-law often complained about the way she went about her work.

"She would take me for granted and dump work on me, just because I was the wife of her eldest son," she says.

"It was sad to realize that none of my hard work was truly appreciated."

This gave her the feeling of being blamed for everything, even her husband's death.

After agonizing about the decision for two years, she dissolved her relationship with her in-laws.

"I'm sure my husband's family has a lot they want to say about me. But I feel at ease now."

The Shibuya Ward Office in Tokyo used to get just a few applications a year from people wanting to end relations with their in-laws after the death of a spouse. But officials say the number is growing.

One official there says, "We have handled 14 cases this fiscal year, all of them filed by women."

The in-laws' consent isn't needed to end relations, and the spouse of the deceased is the only one who can file a request.

Some people who were interviewed on the street questioned this kind of "divorce".

One man says, "I can understand but it's still uncivil. I think it's rude to say good-bye just because the spouse has died."

NHK World's family affairs' correspondent Saori Nakagawa spoke with Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya about the situation.

Beppu: Well I do understand that some people want to cut ties with their in-laws, but whether taking this legal action, whether not taking this legal action, I don't see any difference.

Nakagawa: Indeed. Of course, some people get along well with their in-laws even after their spouse dies, while others rarely see each other. It really depends on their personal situation. There is actually no legal obligation for them to support their spouse's family, even if they haven't applied to end the relationship.

The problem isn't about the system, but about how they think about their families. Our research shows that many women in their fifties and sixties are interested in learning more about "divorce after death." I interviewed a group of these women to find out why they would want to officially break up with their in-laws.

Women who are considering it say there's a huge gap between what they think and value compared with their parents' generation.

One woman gave up her 30-year career to take care of her husband's aging parents.

She says she is not happy with the stereotypes that the older generation have about roles that the wife should play, even with women working outside the home these days.

"The more I do to care for my in-laws, the more they take it for granted," says one woman. "All the relatives think it's my job."

Another woman says, "My father-in-law is typical. He believes no one is above him in the house. He looks down on me as just the wife of his son."

And another woman notes that, "I chose to marry my husband because I liked him, I didn't choose his parents."

When asked how they would feel if their child's spouse decided to end relations with them, opinions varied:

"Well, I don't know. I would probably wonder why my child didn't tell me about it."

"I guess I would reflect on myself if that happened. But before that, I hope that I would have raised my son to be someone who would act as a buffer between his wife and me."

Divorce after the death of a spouse is viewed differently depending on the person's generation and position. Marriage counselor Sakiko Takahara says couples should discuss concerns openly.

"While a couple is still healthy it's important for them to face their problems and try to solve them even when it's difficult," she says. "Divorce after death should only be considered as a last resort. If things don't work out after giving it their best effort, then they have this option."

The thought of divorce after death made this 64-year old man consider future challenges his wife could face.

His elderly mother needs nursing care and now lives in a care facility.

As the eldest son, he shoulders the responsibility of caring for his parents in their old age, a practice common in Japan. He feels it would be too much of a burden on his wife to look after his mother if he were not there.

He asks his wife how she feels about it.

"After I die, I don't want you to take care of my mother if you don't want to," he tells her. "It would be hard for you to keep a good relationship with her."

"Well, I don't know what to say," she responds. "We have avoided talking about how I should deal with my in-laws after my husband dies."

She didn`t come to a decision, but was glad that her husband has given the issue serious thought.

"Listening to my husband's concerns and knowing what he thinks makes me feel better," she says. "I appreciate that."

Saori Nakagawa continued the discussion with Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya.

Shibuya: So attitudes differ from generation to generation, don’t they?

Nakagawa: That's right. Many people in their seventies and eighties feel strongly that the wife is part of the husband’s family.

They think it's natural for her to take care of the household and look after them. And they expect their children to continue this tradition. But the younger generation feels differently. It's now less common for married couples to live with their in-laws. And they have different ideas about family.

Also, women now play a variety of roles in society. In many households, the husband and wife both work. So the role of the traditional housewife is being challenged. These trends explain the difference in views between older and younger generations.

Beppu: But hearing what some people were saying, people who are considering cutting off legal ties with their spouse’s family also feel conflicted, what will they feel if they are treated in the same manner?

Nakagawa: That’s true. The women we talked to didn’t want to be a burden on their sons and their wives. But they worry about being lonely if they legally cut ties.

As the birthrate declines and society ages, the younger generation is expected to bear an ever-greater burden. This problem isn’t just about a wife’s relationship with her husband and his family. Changes in society are forcing us to reconsider the relationship between parents and children and between spouses, and maybe even what it means to be a “family.”