When Keisuke Arai switched to working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, he began bickering more with his long-term girlfriend.
Suspecting he wasn’t alone, the Tokyo-based tourism operator wondered how couples across Japan were coping under lockdown, as they adjusted to being together 24/7 under the same roof.
On April 3, he got his answer as the hashtag #coronadivorce – where people largely ranted about their partners – started trending on social media.
In response, Arai’s company, Kasoku, started advertising hundreds of empty vacation rentals to stressed-out couples.
“We wanted to prevent people from divorcing,” says Arai. “The idea behind the vacation rentals is so that married couples can gain some much-needed time and space to think about their relationships.”
As Japan scrambled to contain an uptick of coronavirus cases in April, businesses shuttered and the tourism sector was hit especially hard as travelers stayed away. As of May 4, there were 14,877 cases nationwide and 487 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
With no clear end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic or Japan’s state of emergency, Arai is banking on bringing in the bucks – and saving some relationships on the way.
Over the last decade, Japan has sought to create a better work-life balance for employees. Although male white-collar workers toiled long hours to power Japan’s economic boom in the 1970s and ’80s, today, more men are spending time with their families.
However, some husbands still spend long hours at the office – not because their boss is forcing them to, but because they want to avoid their homes, according to Jeff Kingston, a Japan expert at Temple University in Tokyo.
“I think (some Japanese men) are sometimes escapists – they want to evade household chores, or they don’t want their teenage kids looking at them like some kind of alien,” says Kingston.
But lockdown has changed household dynamics dramatically.
“Couples are facing a situation they haven’t found themselves in before as the lockdown forces them to stay at home,” writes one Twitter user. “(The pandemic) has forced them to confront a situation they were previously able to avoid.”
But there are more serious reasons someone might need a space away from their partner. Chie Goto, a divorce lawyer at Felice Law Office in Hyogo prefecture warns on her blog that some women may become particularly vulnerable to cases of domestic abuse.
Kasoku wants to offer these people a reprieve. It also works with women experiencing domestic violence to help them find a place to stay that is within their budget.
Considering that domestic violence in Japan reached a record high in 2019, that’s a service that may prove vitally important.
Here’s how it works: The company offers 500 fully furnished rooms in hotels and inns across Japan. Guests can stay from one day to six months. A unit costs just over 4,000 yen ($37) per day and up to 90,000 ($844) per month.
Kasoku has received over 140 inquiries, overwhelmingly from women in their 30s to 40s, who are either looking for a quiet place to telework, who want time away from their spouse. So far, 37 people have opted to rent a room.
The Japanese divorce rate stands roughly at two per 1,000 people per year, compared to three per 1,000 in the US and 4.5 per 1,000 in Russia, according to a survey published by the OECD in 2017.
Japan hasn’t had a sudden spike in divorces yet, but the venting on social media indicates people’s growing frustration amid the pandemic, writes Goto.
” ‘Coronadivorce’ has a definite cause, and measures need to be taken,” she adds.
According to Goto, people react differently to adversity. Under lockdown pressure, people may feel like their outlook on life – and the coronavirus pandemic – is so different to that of their partners that it becomes impossible to see eye to eye.
For instance, one Twitter user who used the #coronadivorce hashtag took a more careful approach to the virus than her husband.
“No matter how many times I reminded my husband, he didn’t bother wearing gloves, a face mask or protective glasses when he visited the hospital,” she tweets. “I even told him some coronavirus clusters were forming in hospitals.”
Another appeared frustrated by her husband’s inability to zone out of work mode.
“Work is important, but I want my husband to be more flexible when faced with an unfamiliar situation. Doesn’t he get he has a child? Is he thinking his wife is a housekeeper? Loser,” wrote another.
However, not everyone can afford to take a staycation to get a break from a partner.
To avoid conflict, Goto advises couples to hold their own “corona counter-measure meetings” where they discuss how they can overcome the lifestyle shift together.
Goto recommends setting rules that cover the basics like how to dispose of masks properly, washing hands immediately after coming home, and who will make which meal. Pin those somewhere visible, she adds.
The coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty around the future. That outlook can seep into the home, with people feeling like they’re “spinning out of control,” according to Alison McClymont, a Hong Kong-based psychotherapist.
“When we see destruction all around us, we can start to mirror this in (our) homes. People might be more snappy, dismissive and aggressive,” she says.
Compartmentalizing time and creating mental space can help.
“When we can’t physically be away from someone, we have to create it in a cognitive way,” says Michael Nevans, the director of the Tokyo mental health center.
He recommends couples carry on with their day as though they were at the office and only reconvene at the end of the day.
A chance to reset
Arai hopes the vacation rentals can be a temporary refuge, instead of a long-term solution. “We wanted people to take the space to reflect on what wasn’t working in their relationships,” he says.
But just in case, his firm has partnered with a divorce consulting service, if couples feel they’ve reached the end of the line.
The physical distancing may be cathartic for people, but it’s not an effective way of coping with the relationship, according to John Lim, the chief well-being officer at Singapore Counselling Centre.
“Going beyond this, it is crucial for the couple to examine the relationship to determine how they can address the differences and conflicts for the sake of a happier and healthier long-term relationship,” he says.
For others, the crisis triggered by the pandemic might even be a chance to strengthen ties.
“People may have previously had so much interruptions from work and school that they didn’t take that much time as a family together. This time (in lockdown) may have helped them to reprioritize their family in their life,” says McClymont.
Amid the talk of breakups, Twitter users also shared upbeat thoughts on the coronadivorce hashtag, with some posting images of meals they’d cooked as a couple, or commenting they enjoyed spending more time together.
One person even predicted the next trending hashtag.
“”Coronadivorce” has become a buzzword in the world because many people are feeling a bit negative at the moment,” tweeted one person.”But I’m pretty sure that that when the pandemic is over, “corona marriage” will start trending.”