Batsuichi. Maruni. What do these terms mean and signify in Japan? Savvy Tokyo takes a closer look at how divorce is traditionally perceived in Japan and how people’s attitude toward it may be changing.
Recently, I was having lunch with one of my close female friends. She’s in her late 20s and recently divorced her husband, with whom she had been dating since college. The reason was simple: her husband had serious money issues that caused a major problem between them to the point that it broke their relationship. Even though she had a solid reason to separate from him, she kept telling me that she isn’t “pure” and shouldn’t actively seek out new love. Why? I asked and she responded that she is now batsuichi — a common Japanese term used to refer to someone who’s undergone divorce, which roughly translates to “strike one” or “one name struck from the family register.”
Another day, I was enjoying lunch with another friend in her early 40s. We were updating each other on what had been happening in our lives recently when she started talking about her now second marriage — or, more precisely, whether or not she should continue her marriage with her cheating husband. It was clear that my friend was both fed up and devastated, as this was not the first time her husband had had an affair. Yet she was reluctant to leave him because doing so would make her batsuni, or someone who has been divorced twice.
While listening to my friends talk, a question — or rather, a series of questions — came to mind. Why are these women feeling a sense of guilt about divorcing their problematic spouses? Why should divorce get in the way of starting a new life? As someone who has spent over 10 years living in the U.S. and seeing how marriage and family take various forms and shapes overseas, I couldn’t help but ponder this distinct Japanese negative attitude toward divorce.
The Scarlet Letter X: Divorce in Japan’s registry system
The extreme negativism toward divorce in Japan is largely rooted in our koseki, or family registry, system. Back in the days when registry records were handwritten, when two people tied the knot, one of them took on the spouse’s surname, thus marrying into the spouse’s family. His or her first name was written into the spouse’s official family register. Should the marriage end in divorce, however, the name was crossed out with a large “X” — a symbol Japanese people call batsu.
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