A visitor from another planet (a unisexual planet, let’s say) would speedily infer that men and women are mutually hostile creatures. Marriage would puzzle her (the feminine pronoun is purely arbitrary) — all the more so if she stayed long enough to learn the language and hear how ancient and universal an institution it is. Details vary with time and place, but the ceremonial union (fusion?) of man and woman seems as inescapably human as culture itself, irrespective of how badly it seems to work.

As good hosts, we would try to explain. There is a feeling called love which, directed at a particular person, makes you want to spend your whole life with that person. If the feeling is mutual, so much the better. If not at first, perhaps charm, persuasion and seduction will make it so. Marriage often results in children, helpless little beings who need parental protection — the cement that binds, in theory, even faltering unions.

But love has a peculiar way of evolving into its opposite: hate. Maybe it’s the old story of familiarity breeding contempt. Or maybe it’s more complicated. In the United States, that most individualistic of countries, divorce has long been commonplace, and is now the fate of roughly half of all marriages. Japan, more staid, less free and easy, more inclined to subordinate individual wills to social obligations, presents a more stable picture — or used to. Much less so lately. The weekly Shukan Diamond, in a lengthy feature on the subject, quotes a recent health ministry survey that draws this colorful conclusion: Nationwide, a couple divorces every 2 minutes and 13 seconds, as against a couple marrying every 47 seconds. It works out to about one marriage in three ending in divorce.

Divorce, especially when there are children, seems to entail such bottomless misery, you’d think even an unhappy marriage — even a sexless marriage, as half of all surviving marriages are estimated to be — would be preferable. Shukan Diamond introduces (pseudonymously) one Mr. Kawaguchi, age 36, as a typical instance. He and his wife married 10 years ago after she got pregnant. For a year everything was fine. Then his work responsibilities multiplied, leaving him no time for wife and son. He adored them both, but work is work. She had quit her own job; the baby was her only company. There’s a name for what that can do to you: “childcare neurosis.” She had it. What he had was chronic exhaustion. They rarely saw each other, and whenever they did they quarreled. Three years passed. She couldn’t take it anymore. She took the boy and moved back with her parents. The case went to Family Court. It’s still there, mediation having failed and more formal proceedings having begun. Dad wants to visit the child once a month. Once a year is plenty, insists mom. He is so emotionally shattered he can’t bear the sight of small children — they remind him of his own, with whom he has all but lost touch. He avoids parks, shopping centers, any place where kids are likely to be. The sight of them breaks his heart.

A new law passed early this year aims at clarifying the fraught issue of visiting rights. But no law will make unhappy marriages happy, or acrimonious divorces pleasant. If only life were simpler, less stressful. If only the conflicting demands made on us — at home, at work, by economic necessity, by certain inalterable facts of the human heart — could be slackened just a bit. Once upon a time in fact they were, and Spa! magazine in August looked back wistfully on an ancient rural tradition, surviving here and there into recent times, called night crawling. There are regional variations on the theme. In some places teenage girls, with full parental approval, left their doors open to whatever man or boy might come calling, or crawling. In northern Kyushu the custom received religious sanction — on the last night of the year villagers would congregate naked at the shrine, and whatever happened happened. Spa! praises the custom as sex education, mutual aid and stress relief — “unthinkable now,” it concludes sadly, though in rural Okayama Prefecture it persisted apparently into the 1970s.

Modernity refined the unruliness out of us, and we pay the price. But somehow, as a species, no defeat keeps us down for long. A tribute to our unquenchable optimism is Part 2 of Shukan Diamond’s feature — on remarriage. Remarriage? The message is “better luck next time” — without irony. A certain Mr. Sakamoto makes the case. Fresh from a bitter divorce, he showed up at Onets, a leading marriage consultation service, looking for “a partner who’ll make me happy next time.” His ¥12 million a year income is an asset; his age, he fears, is a drawback, although why should it be? By today’s standards 52 is hardly old, and of Onets’ 20,000-odd female members, many are in their 40s and 50s and looking for exactly what Sakamoto seeks — a second chance cloaked in graver maturity, sounder judgment and richer life experience than are possible at the usual age of a first marriage.

Maybe all marriages should be second marriages.

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