TOKYO -- Sakura Terakawa, 63, describes her four decades of married life in a small urban apartment as a gradual transition from wife to mother to servant. Communication with her husband started with love letters and wooing words under pink cherry blossoms. It devolved over time, she said, into mostly demands for his evening meals and nitpicking over the quality of her housework.
So when he came home one afternoon three years ago, beaming, and announced he was ready to retire, Terakawa despaired.
Concerned about her financial future if she divorced, Terakawa stuck with their marriage -- only to become one of an extraordinary number of elderly Japanese women stricken with a disorder that experts here have recently begun diagnosing as retired husband syndrome.
Feeling chained to the tradition of older women remaining utterly dedicated to their husbands' well-being, Terakawa said, she devoted herself to her spouse. Retirement cut him off from his longtime office social network, leaving him virtually friendless and her with the strain of filling his empty time. Within a few weeks, she said, he was hardly leaving the house, watching television and reading the newspaper -- and barking orders at her. He often forbade her to go out with her friends. When he did let her go, Terakawa said, she had to prepare all his meals before leaving.
After several months, she developed stomach ulcers, her speech began to slur and rashes broke out around her eyes. When doctors discovered polyps in her throat but could find no medical reason for her sudden burst of ailments, she was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed stress-related retired husband syndrome.
Terakawa began receiving therapy from Nobuo Kurokawa, a physician who is one of Japan's leading authorities on the condition.
''Come to therapy," he said. ''Then spend as much time as possible away from your husband."
Though after-retirement stress is a common problem in most developed countries as husbands and wives try to balance relationships in their twilight years, analysts say Japan has become extraordinary for myriad reasons -- including the fact that one-fifth of Japanese are now over 65, the highest percentage in the world.
Even as gender roles have changed for younger people here, with women entering the workforce in record numbers, older Japanese have remained far more rigid. As with most Japanese men of his generation, Terakawa's husband demanded strict obedience from her, she said, even while he spent his life almost entirely apart from her and their three children.
''I had developed my own life, my own way of doing things, in the years when he was never home," Terakawa said. She said she cannot even stand to look at her husband across the dinner table now and sits at an angle so she can stare out a window instead.
Kurokawa estimates that as many as 60 percent of the wives of retired men may suffer from some degree of retired husband syndrome.
With a record number of Japanese men set to retire -- almost 7 million from 2007 to 2009 -- experts warn that the disorder has the potential to explode.
Tomohisa Kotake, a 66-year-old retired banker, knows the story well. ''At first, I was a typical retired Japanese husband -- I didn't do anything for myself and asked my wife to serve me," he said. It immediately strained his marriage. Part of the problem, he said, was that his wife still had many female friends, but most of his friends had been work acquaintances. Pushed by his wife, he finally joined one of the more than 3,000 support groups that have recently sprouted up nationwide, aimed at ''retraining" retired Japanese men to be more independent and communicative with their wives.
Kotake's group -- Men in the Kitchen -- taught him how to shop, cook, and clean for himself. He now does the dishes and cooks for his wife at least once a week. ''I will never forget the look of happiness in her eyes the first time I cleaned the house while she was taking a bath," he said.
Kotake's wife, Nobuko Kotake, 62, now speaks glowingly of her husband.
''By Japanese standards, we are still relatively young even though we are retired," Tomohisa Kotake said. ''We have a long life ahead of us. It is better that we spend that time enjoying each other. Doing more around the house is a small price for me to pay."