Domingo 19 de Mayo de 2002, Ip nº 15

Tokyo journal; death does them part (wives make sure of that)
Por Howard W. French

In Japan, where career opportunities for women are few, where divorce can mean a life of hardship and stigma, and where most female names are still formed using a word for child, a woman's independence has always come at a steep price.

So five years ago, at 56, Noriko Matsushima opted for freedom in the grave. The longtime homemaker used her private savings to buy a burial plot two hours outside Tokyo where her ashes will be placed separately, rather than, as custom would have it, alongside her spouse.

''I worked hard to raise our children and to help my husband's business too, but nothing I did was appreciated,'' said Ms. Matsushima, a 61-year-old with permed curly hair who nowadays counsels battered women. ''For most of my marriage I wasn't allowed to decide anything, not even what to put in the miso soup. For that I had to defer to my mother-in-law.

''I finally got fed up and told my husband to have himself buried alongside his mother, and I bought my own grave. He was really upset, but I had always been looking for something to do on my own, and finally I've found it.''

Notions of women's liberation have never taken root among Japanese women. But with scant open conflict, the push for separate burials is quietly becoming one of the country's fastest growing social trends. In a recent survey by the TBS television network, 20 percent of the women who responded said they hoped to be buried separately from their husbands.

The funerary revolt comes as women here chafe over Japan's slow pace in providing greater equality between the sexes. The law, for example, still makes it almost impossible for a woman to use her maiden name after marriage. Divorce rates are low by Western standards, meanwhile, because achieving financial independence, or even obtaining a credit card in one's own name, are insurmountable hurdles for many divorced women.

Until recently, society enforced restrictions on women even in death. Under Japan's complex burial customs, divorced or unmarried women were traditionally unwelcome in most graveyards, where plots are still passed down through the husband's family and descendants must provide maintenance for burial sites or lose them.

''The woman who wanted to be buried alone couldn't find a graveyard until about 10 years ago,'' said Haruyo Inoue, a sociologist of death and burial at Japan University. She said that graveyards that did not require descendants, in order to accommodate women, began appearing around 1990.

Today, she said, that there are close to 400 of these cemeteries in Japan. That is just one sign of stirring among Japanese women, who are also pressing for the first time to change the law to be able to use their maiden names after marriage.

Although credit goes beyond any individual, many women cite Junko Matsubara, a popular writer on women's issues, with igniting the trend to separate sex burials. Starting three years ago, Ms. Matsubara has built an association of nearly 600 women -- some divorced, some unhappily married, and some determinedly single -- who plan to share a common plot carved out of an ordinary cemetery in the western suburb of Chofu.

''The point isn't simply to avoid being buried with one's husband, but rather to learn how we as women can lead more independent lifestyles,'' said the elegant 55-year-old, who divorced in her 20's after a single year of marriage. ''Many of our members were worried about what happens at the end of their lives, and I thought it would put them at ease to find a way for women to be buried together.

''I've been surprised at the way women have come forward to express their interest, saying they've always felt the same way and didn't know there were others like them out there. For many of these women it's almost like coming out.''

Her use of this term might suggest that the group promotes lesbianism or radical feminism. But Ms. Matsubara and most other members of the organization, which is known as S.S.S. for single, smile and senior, reject any such associations.

''I wasn't mature when I got married, but now that I've developed my own character and feel ready, Japanese men won't accept me,'' she said in an interview at the pristine Chofu graveyard, where the smell of memorial incense wafts through the air along with gentle classical music. ''I am not a shouter of women's liberation. Look at me, I am very feminine. But men are afraid.''

Ms. Matsubara sat on a low marble bench that surrounds her group's unconventional grave plot, which is built almost like a manhole, but is tastefully decorated with a crystal lid and flowers. The bench was designed to allow women to gather to celebrate the lives of their members and of those who have died.

In the near distance, married couples visited the more traditional plots of their loved ones. Husbands looked on while their wives knelt with brushes and buckets to scrub tombstones clean and replace flowers.

''That's the normal pattern,'' Ms. Matsubara said with a sigh. ''This has always been the wife's job in Japan, just like cleaning and cooking and child care. But gradually, younger women are resisting the old roles and things are starting to change.''

Ms. Matsushima, the former homemaker, recalls the moment her life began to change.

''One day a bunch of women friends got together for lunch,'' she said. ''It wasn't anything very fancy. But someone said, 'I feel so sorry for my hardworking husband to be spending this money.' Then some of us began to say: 'Wait, we shouldn't be ashamed of anything. All of us are working hard for our families, too.' ''

She and her friends formed a small discussion group and began inviting distinguished women to address it.

Later, Ms. Matsushima, a high-school graduate and mother of three daughters, decided to study psychology, and earned a counselor's certificate.

''Since we had married I had been living entirely according to his calendar,'' she said. ''When I told him about my grave, he said, I don't mind where I'm buried -- not even comprehending that we would not be together. Then he said he would pay for it. But I felt that without spending my own money, it was meaningless.''

''It may have shocked him,'' she said, ''but by doing this kind of thing, I've found the strength to really live.''

  09/05/2002. The New York Times.


No hay comentarios sobre este artículo.

Tenés que estar registrado para enviar comentarios. Registrate aquí.

Si ya te registraste, ingresá tu Usuario y Contraseña aquí: