The Truth about Graduation from Marriage

Jun 2, 2020 | 360, CULTURE, Japan, Korea

Couples in Sunset – Anmyeondo Beach, South Korea ©Rayhue

Asians are changing the way they view marriage, and more couples are now starting to use the term “graduation from marriage” constantly. For some, it’s the only way they can enjoy their freedom. But what does this controversial practice specifically entail? 

If you’ve watched the South Korean travel reality show Grandpas Over Flowers, you’re probably familiar with Baek Il-seob. The 72-year old veteran actor has been married to the same woman for forty years. However, there’s a catch: he hasn’t seen his wife in over twelve months. 

In an interview with a talk show, the actor raised the eyebrows of many when he admitted that he “graduated from marriage,” and is now busy with his new show where he is seen visiting his doctors, grocery shopping, and adopting a dog – all without his wife. If it’s your first time hearing this term, you are not alone. This practice is only common in Japan and South Korea.

What is Graduation of Marriage?

Also called “Jolhon” in Korean, or “Sotsukon” in Japanese, the concept of graduating from marriage was coined by Sugiyawa Yumuko, who wrote the 2004 book Sotsukon no Susume or I Recommending the Graduating From Marriage. 

The term started to gain traction in 2013 when comedian Akira Shimizu announced that he and his wife would graduate from marriage, and they published a book called Sotsukon – A New Form of Love.  

This practice involves a married couple choosing to stay bound together legally, but living like a single individual. Meaning, you can live on your own, and enjoy activities you love. This way, men and women can be free form spousal nagging of meddling. Graduation from marriage is also a solution for people who want to regain their personal freedom back and pursue their dreams.

LGBT Pride, Taipei City ©Taiwan Scenery Gallery

Friend’s Wedding ©Su-Hwan Pyo

What Can You Gain From It?

While this practice may seem controversial in nature, it comes as no surprise that many Asian couples are trying it. In conservative nations like South Korea, divorce is still common for seniors. While the overall divorce rate in the country fell between 2004 and 2014 from 139,000 to only 115,000, the number of couples married for over 20 years who divorced rose by 30 percent. 

For both women and men, this practice is a way to know whether distance will truly make the heart grow fonder. But more than that, it grants them the chance to improve their life satisfaction. Although the statistics of couples who have tried this is unavailable, the Interstation Architecture Agency in Tokyo reported that more than 50 percent of couples want to go down this path. 

Old-age divorces also called “sunset divorce” have a lot of disadvantages. However, the heaviest one may be the stigma that comes with it, which is particularly stronger for older generations.

Evolving Concept of Love

This practice comes at a unique time in Japan where the lowest birth number has been recorded. Japanese women were also found to have a long life expectancy at 87.32 years by the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry. All these factors play an integral part in the rising couples who are partaking in the practice. 

For most women, the longest period of their life happens after their children leave home but society dictates they have nothing to do except care for their husband. However, the changing demographics made women realize that pursuing their hobbies is also important.

South Korea Couple ©Rodrigo Filgueira

South Korea Couple ©Rodrigo Filgueira

Real-Life Couples Who Graduated from Marriage

Kimiko, 69, and her husband Shojiro Shindo, 71, have raised three children in their 46 years of marriage. They were both high school physical education teachers and also taught at a university. But instead of spending their retired life together, Kimiko decided she wanted to graduate from marriage and rent a house in the Amami-Oshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture where she has been living as a farmer. 

On the other hand, her husband continues to live in his hometown in Hokkaido where he continues to serve as the Local Residents Association Vice-Chairman. He also sees his grandchildren who live close to him and goes skiing in his spare time.  

Instead of erasing each other’s presence, the two regularly e-mail and call each other. They even buy budget airline tickets to visit each other.  

“We’ll start our sotsukon [graduation from marriage] life. We’ll live in different places in the north and south and visit each other,” shared Shojiro. 

They are not alone. Yoshihide Ito, 63, worked as a cameraman in Tokyo and decided he wanted to return to southern Japan to become a rice farmer. On the other hand, his wife Yuriko Nishi preferred to stay in Tokyo and work as a fashion stylist. Despite this, they don’t let distance separate them. 

“He visits me once a month. I visit him for a week at a time, too,” said Nishi, adding that their marriage is in good shape even if they share different lifestyles. 

'Leaving Together', China ©Gauthier Delecroix

‘Leaving Together’, China ©Gauthier Delecroix

Dealing with Challenges

Women in Japan and Korea share the same dilemma when it comes to dealing with patriarchy. Traditionally, men are in charge of being the head of the household and finances, while women are seen as someone who only tends to children and chores. 

“I want to have time to myself. It’s annoying to have to tell my husband every time I want to do something,” shared a 46-year-old woman who wants to break free from doing chores.  

Because of the traditional confines of these gender roles, many women are also forced to stop exploring their dreams.  

“I think men who deny their wives sotsukon have been living a self-centered existence,” said Kazumi Yamamoto, who delivers seminars on the logistics of graduation of marriage. A graduate of marriage herself, she finally did her life-long ambition of opening her own beauty clinic in Tokyo.

Another 56-year old woman said that she and her husband do not have much to say to each other and he thinks she is just her maid.  

“But I don’t want to divorce or I might feel lonely when my health becomes weaker,” she added. 

Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Inc. executive researcher Yasuko Matoba shared that couples are now less committed to work division based on gender.  

“More and more people are departing from the conventional gender-based division of work, such as wives taking care of their husbands. This trend probably has led to increasing interest in sotsukon,” reporte Matoba.

Preventing Divorce Through Graduation From Marriage

Marriage counselor Atsuko Okano said that graduation from marriage enables couples to maintain their social status as married individuals and see each other’s positive traits. This arrangement helps to prevent divorce.  

Many individuals are on the rocks about pursuing graduation from marriage due to concerns about future thoughtless behavior of their spouse.   

“The ideal sotsukon is based on a constructive agreement between a husband and wife, but I’m afraid there are not many cases like this,” he shared.  

But according to Okano, when done right, graduation from marriage does not result in a loveless marriage which forces the wife or husband to endure a situation they don’t want. For couples who want to try it, expressing gratitude and showing consideration is essential.  

The Graduation from Marriage is quite a unique concept. While couples in the west would most likely opt for divorce compared to this, there’s no denying it has potential especially for couples who still want to get in touch with one another.  

Thanks to technology and cheap flights, married couples who are practicing graduation from marriage can still communicate easily. This concept can be a solution where couples can maintain mutual love, intimacy, and trust without being together physically. In a way, graduation from marriage has transformed the roles of South Korean and Japanese families into becoming more individualized.