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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Men and Retirement

A number of the men i earlier interviewed had in the intervening years retired; their senses of being men had shifted and diminished as compared to what they had been twenty years earlier, and their family relations had also changed. As one woman, now in her seventies, said about her husband, “Over the years, i began to understand how at heart he really was kind. Now i can be more relaxed with him and have a warmer feeling; that wasn't the case until Recently, after he stopped being so busy at work. It's no longer a matter of man and woman but a human feeling that's most important in our relationship.” Moore, in her study of men's extramarital affairs, found that after retirement, men had far fewer affairs (2010), in that they no longer lived in a separate realm from their wives and became more dependent upon them—or more aware that they were dependent. White (2002, 166) mentions how one older Japanese woman she interviewed described retirement with her husband as being “like heaven,” in all the travel and fun within an equal relationship that they could now have. It may well be that for some fortunate couples, the husband's retirement is indeed joyful because it signifies that the gender role division of work and home has to some extent given way, and husband and wife can be together in the remaining decades of their lives. However, more frequently after men retire, they expect their wives to play the same homemaking role they played while the men were working, to their wives' frustration.

Indeed, many men are lost after leaving behind their careers, not knowing what to do with themselves. One scholar writes of how older Japanese men may become alcoholic in their retirement: they may have no friends or activities but only drink and watch tv (takenaka 2000, 44, 47). Another remarks that these newly retired men “have wholly devoted themselves to work, and now they have no idea what to do with their lives. . . . This is especially true for corporate employees during the high growth era. . . . Losing their purpose in life in work, they may quickly grow old” (Kanemaru 1999, 10). Such responses may become less prevalent in years to come, as a new generation of men who have not wholly surrendered themselves to work enters retirement, but are still widespread today.

I interviewed one husband and wife twenty years ago who were then having a difficult time both because of the husband's depression, endangering his job as a corporate worker, and because of their worry about their children. Today, the husband has finished his career and retired at age sixty-two while their children are living conventionally successful lives, but both husband and wife continue to suffer from depression. As she told me, the problem is that although she has a reasonably comfortable life, without great money worries, there's nothing that she wants to do—nothing seems worth doing. She indicated that partly her condition was due to the influence of her husband, who, still under daily medication, does little all day but sleep and eat. However, since her husband retired, she has insisted that he do half the housework and cooking. She worries that if she dies, he won't know what to do; sharing the housework is a way of overcoming this worry.7 Meanwhile, though, their life seems joyless, bereft of interests or of curiosity. It is as if he, having completed His forty-year role as a corporate worker, and she, having completed her role as a mother raising her children to adulthood, are empty. In terms of masculinity, having completed his masculine breadwinner role, there is nothing left for him to do but eat, sleep, and eventually die.

I interviewed another man with a wholly different approach toward life. He had been an ordinary corporate worker in the thick of his work twenty years earlier, with a wife and young children. Now, with his children grown up and his company role close to being finished, he could not wait to retire— indeed, when he was asked to be the branch head of his company, he refused, opting to leave instead. As he told me, “i don't yet know what exactly i will do—it's a year away—but i want to read all the history books i've wanted to read and then travel to those places, all over the world. My wife doesn't want to go—she doesn't speak any english—so i'll go alone. I can do it!” He told me that unlike twenty years ago, he has learned to enjoy life more, especially in the retirement he so looks forward to.

Whether the retirement he actually lives will be as fulfilling as he imagines it will be is an open question, and whether he can live it without becoming estranged from his wife also remains to be seen. The key issue here is this: why is one man, finished with his corporate role, essentially finished with life, while another man is able to dream and live beyond the role that he has played for all his adulthood? What accounts for this difference in personal flexibility? To some extent, this seems to be a medical issue, one of clinical depression and its ravages; clinical depression is apparently a significant factor in one couple's joylessness. However, in a more general sense, a key to being happy as a man is to be able to fully live life for all of one's years. From the literature, living life fully seems to be an enormous challenge facing retiring men of the postwar Japanese baby boom (see yanagisawa 2007 for one example of all the exhortatory literature on how the elderly can find a new purpose in life). Being a man today requires more than merely playing a role in work and family, but for some retired corporate workers, this exhortation may be too late.

 
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