TOKYO (AFP) — Perched on a beer case serving as a makeshift podium in central Tokyo, a group of middle-aged men are standing up to save their marriages -- and, they hope, marriage in Japan generally.
In a country where reticence about one's private life is the norm, these men are trying to prove their worth to their wives by making their vows as public as possible.
"I'm sorry I always forget to put the toilet seat down," said one man in a suit and tie confessed as he balanced on the beer box on a recent Saturday in Shimbashi, Tokyo's hub of "salaryman" corporate workers.
"I hereby declare that I will stop going to the hostess bar, I'm sorry," said another man as his wife looked on amid a crowd of curious bystanders.
Said another man: "I love you, even though I don't really say it."
The 20 men taking part in the unlikely rally chant their slogan together: "Say 'thank you' without hesitating. Say 'sorry' without being scared. Say 'I love you' without being shy."
The gathering is the brainchild of Shuichi Amano, a magazine editor in the southern city of Fukuoka and founder of the National Teishu-Kampaku Association, loosely translated as the Chauvinistic Husbands Association.
He started the group when, in 1999, he felt the need for drastic action to prevent his own marriage of more than 20 years from falling apart. He was then in his late 40s and found that many of his friends were also on the verge of marital breakdown and divorce.
In a social phenomenon that has even been turned into a popular television drama, a growing number of Japanese women have begun suing their husbands for divorce once the men retire. The aim of the women is to bring an end to longstanding marital problems caused by the indifference of their husbands as well as their incompetence in the home.
"Many husbands are making a living managing risks at their businesses, but they neglect the ones at home," Amano, now 55, told AFP.
"The old ways don't work anymore and we husbands have to get out of our little fantasy of having ultimate power over our wives. We have to show our ability to change ourselves for the sake of our marriage," he said.
"Marriage is like a triathlon to love one person throughout the race. Winning or losing isn't important -- you have to overcome every bump on the way to complete the race."
Amano tried to devote himself to pleasing his wife by doing laundry and dishes and, he admitted, pretending to listen when she chatted even if the conversation did not interest him.
Through his own interviews with women, Amano said he found that everything boiled down to the desire of wives to hear their husbands say "three magic phrases" more often: "Thank you," "Sorry," and "I love you".
He describes his technique in saving marriages as "smileage" -- husbands accumulating the goodwill of their wives. Even in his own case, he said, the words seemed empty at first, coming as they did from a man who throughout his life had rarely displayed any emotion.
"My wife was pretty suspicious of my change at the beginning but after a couple of years, I believe that she has regained her smile," Amano said.
The association brings members together to exchange experiences about marriage, with public events that build confidence.
Teruo Manabe, a 67-year-old who recently joined in the hope of preserving "family harmony," said he had learned to compliment his wife in front of others.
"I believe people from the older generations like myself should take a lead in change," he said.
His wife, Shinko Manabe, said she saw the differences.
"He now easily says thank you, and has started saying sorry as well, but I still don't hear him saying he loves me," she said with a smile.
Divorce has steadily become more common in Japan, although the rate remains well below that in most Western countries. Middle-aged divorce is particularly on the increase, with more than 45,000 couples married for more than 20 years divorced in 2002 -- three times the level of three decades ago, according to the welfare ministry.
Japan's divorce rate is widely expected to rise as the baby-boomer generation prepares to retire.
A change in the law this year entitles divorced women to receive part of their former husbands' pensions. The pension system is under increasing pressure as Japan's population rapidly ages, with many young people choosing to delay starting families.
Amano said the root of the problem lay in the fact that many older men had been raised to be bread-winners and to believe their wives, like their mothers, should take care of the home without complaint.
More than 80 percent of married women, regardless of whether they work outside the home or not, say they do most of the housework, including cooking, cleaning and washing, according to a recent survey by the state-run National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
Amano said young people in Japan are increasingly growing up in school and work environments in which men and women are considered equal. But he said real change in society, including the declining rate of marriage, would not come about without a broader change in households, along with the workplace.
"Nowadays there's a sense in society that it's supposed to be gender-equal," Amano said. "But I believe that if husbands change, then families will change, and then Japan as a whole would change."
His association now includes some 4,000 members nationwide -- an astonishing number given that some of the things they pledge to do, such as publicly apologising for not replacing the toilet seat, are emasculating for even the most modern-minded Japanese male.
And none of the members, who vary in age from their 20s to their 60s, have divorced, Amano said, having learned to survive and overcome many problems -- from communication breakdown to nastier situations including fights in front of their children, a complete end to their sex lives and extramarital affairs.
The group has set up 10 levels to determine good husbands. The first level is the husband simply believing that he is still in love with his wife.
Amano, despite spearheading the group, acknowledged that he has only reached level five -- being able to walk hand-in-hand with his wife.
He said he is still working to get to level 10: not feeling shy when he says, "I love you."