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“No divorce is a single event,” writes anthropologist Allison Alexy, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. “Divorces extend over time, shifting from a private thought to a spousal conversation, a legal status to a rearrangement of parental identities, with new freedoms that come with literal and emotional costs.”

This sentiment captures the scope of Alexy’s new book, “Intimate Disconnections: Divorce and the Romance of Independence in Contemporary Japan.” Often more satisfying than the topic suggests, it is a study of dissolving marriages, including reasons for separation, legal processes and custody arrangements, as well as financial and social implications.

Intimate Disconnections: Divorce and the Romance of Independence in Contemporary Japan, by Allison Alexy
248 pages
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

From 2005 to 2006, with follow-up work done in 2009 and 2011, Alexy lived in various Tokyo suburbs and the less urban Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, conducting interviews with divorcees and sitting in on support groups about “family problems.” The resulting book is a panorama of Japanese mores and attitudes toward marriage, many of them in flux as people negotiate dependences and self-interest.

Alexy starts “Intimate Disconnections” with what makes Japanese marriages work, devoting a chapter to “Two Tips to Avoid Divorce” that are mainly directed at men. The advice, as voiced by her research subjects, seems simple enough: Do not call a spouse “mother” or “father” and be sure to tell them “I love you.” Additional help, Alexy notes, is available at the National Chauvinistic Husbands Association, a group helping old-school hubbies to avoid acting like feudal lords.

From new expectations of communication in marriage, the book moves on to divorce and its discontents. As Japanese law does not allow for joint custody, it is common for a noncustodial parent to rarely see a child after separation. Alexy examines these difficult “clean breaks,” which aim to spare a child the conflict of having to navigate loyalties and shuttle between estranged parents. She writes that “in this logic, the leaving parent understands their own exit as a gesture of deep love for their children.”

As befitting an ethnographic study, “Intimate Disconnections” comes alive through the voices of its subjects. In a series of vignettes, we learn of a man who proposes to save on his phone bill, and a wife who appreciates her selfish husband for always telling her exactly what he wants.

The romance of independence, however, seems to be mainly the domain of working women. Slightly partial to the female perspective, Alexy allows that her “research has been haunted by a lonely, starving, older man” — i.e. the notion of a divorcee who is unable to function without his wife.

Readers may be surprised, then, to hear that divorce in Japan often leaves women worse off in their status, both socially and financially. It still carries a stigma — as reflected in the term batsu, which marks a divorcee as a “person X” and the divorce itself as a failure — and may set women back in their professional careers.

Japan isn’t known as a model for marital romance, a sentiment that is reflected in “Intimate Disconnections.” But in the spirit of anthropology that aims to explain without judgment or prescription, Alexy’s book helps understand a society moving away from equating marriage with normalcy.

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