Japan Table of Contents

The family is the earliest locus of social life for an individual, and it provides a model of social organization for most later encounters with the wider world. Yet, as uchi, the Japanese family does not have clear boundaries. At times, it may refer to a nuclear family of parents and unmarried children. On other occasions, it refers to a line of descent, and on still others, it refers to the household as a unit of production or consumption.

A great variety of family forms have existed historically in Japan, from the matrilocal customs of the Heian elite, which are described in Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji), to the extreme patrilineality of the samurai class in the feudal period. Numerous family forms, through which ran a common belief in the existence of the family-household beyond the life of its current members, coexisted particularly in the countryside. Among the upper classes and wealthier merchant and artisan urban households of the Tokugawa period, the chonin, providing for household continuity, and if possible enriching the household's estate, represented duty to one's ancestors and appreciation toward one's parents.

With the promulgation of the Domestic Relations and Inheritance Law in 1898, the Japanese government institutionalized more rigid family controls than most people had known in the feudal period. Individuals were registered in an official family registry. In the early twentieth century, each family was required to conform to the ie (household) system, with a multigenerational household under the legal authority of a household head. In establishing the ie system, the government moved the ideology of family in the opposite direction of trends resulting from urbanization and industrialization. The ie system took as its model for the family the Confucian-influenced pattern of the upper classes of the Tokugawa period. Authority and responsibility for all members of the ie lay legally with the household head. Each generation supplied a male and female adult, with a preference for inheritance by the first son and for patrilocal marriage. When possible, daughters were expected to marry out, and younger sons were expected to establish their own households. Women could not legally own or control property or select spouses. The ie system thus artificially restricted the development of individualism, individual rights, women's rights, and the nuclearization of the family. It formalized patriarchy and emphasized lineal and instrumental, rather than conjugal and emotional ties, within the family.

After World War II, the Allied occupation forces established a new family ideology based on equal rights for women, equal inheritance by all children, and free choice of spouse and career. From the late 1960s, most marriages in Japan have been based on the mutual attraction of the couple and not the arrangement by the parents. Moreover, arranged marriages might begin with an introduction by a relative or family friend, but actual negotiations do not begin until all parties, including the bride and groom, are satisfied with the relationship.

Under the ie system, only a minority of households included three generations at a time because nonsuccessor sons (those who were not heirs) often set up their own household. From 1970 to 1983, the proportion of three-generation households fell from 19 percent to 15 percent of all households, while twogeneration households consisting of a couple and their unmarried children increased only slightly, from 41 percent to 42 percent of all households. The greatest change has been the increase in couple-only households and in elderly single-person households.

Public opinion surveys in the late 1980s seemed to confirm the statistical movement away from the three-generation ie family model. Half of the respondents did not think that the first son had a special role to play in the family, and nearly two-thirds rejected the need for adoption of a son in order to continue the family. Other changes, such as an increase in filial violence and school refusal, suggest a breakdown of strong family authority.

Official statistics, however, indicate that Japanese concepts of family continued to diverge from those in the United States in the 1980s. The divorce rate, although increasing slowly, remained at 1.3 per 1,000 marriages in 1987, low by international standards. Strong gender roles remained the cornerstone of family responsibilities. Most survey respondents said that family life should emphasize parent-child ties over husband-wife relations. Nearly 80 percent of respondents in a 1986 government survey believed that the ancestral home and family grave should be carefully kept and handed on to one's children. More than 60 percent thought it best for elderly parents to live with one of their children. This sense of family as a unit that continues through time is stronger among people who have a livelihood to pass down, such as farmers, merchants, owners of small companies, and physicians, than among urban salary and wage earners. Anthropologist Jane M. Bachnik noted the continued emphasis on continuity in the rural families she studied. Uchi (here, the contemporary family) were considered the living members of an ie, which had no formal existence. Yet, in each generation, there occurred a sorting of members into permanent and temporary members, defining different levels of uchi.

Various family life-styles exist side by side in contemporary Japan. In many urban salaryman families, the husband may commute to work and return late, having little time with his children except for Sundays, a favorite day for family outings. The wife might be a "professional housewife," with nearly total responsibility for raising children, ensuring their careers and marriages, running the household, and managing the family budget. She also has primary responsibility for maintaining social relations with the wider circles of relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances and for managing the family's reputation. Her social life remains separate from that of her husband. It is increasingly likely that in addition to these family responsibilities, she may also have a part-time job or participate in adult education or other community activities. The closest emotional ties within such families are between the mother and children.

In other families, particularly among the self-employed, husband and wife work side by side in a family business. Although gender-based roles are clear cut, they might not be as rigidly distinct as in a household where work and family are more separated. In such families, fathers are more involved in their children's development because they have more opportunity for interacting with them.

As women worked outside of the home with increasing frequency beginning in the 1970s, there was pressure on their husbands to take on more responsibility for housework and child care. Farm families, who depend on nonfarm employment for most of their income, are also developing patterns of interaction different from those of previous generations.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress