Family-related issues are at the forefront of social challenges facing Japan as it enters the twenty-first century: women are postponing marriage, the birth rate is falling, the divorce rate rising, teenage girls are dating middle-aged men to earn money to buy luxury goods, young men are finding it difficult to attract wives, and the percentage of the elderly is growing rapidly and their care is a major social problem. Japanese leaders are lamenting the breakdown of the Japanese family system or seeking to develop policies to shore up that system.
Is all of this cause for worry, or not? In order to understand the importance of these issues, it is necessary to understand what is meant by “the Japanese family system” and why its purported demise should so concern the state.
BACKGROUND – The development of the Japanese family was a cornerstone of the formation of the Japanese state in the late nineteenth century. The low position of Japanese women was among the various criteria the West used to declare Japan a backward society. Women’s roles were debated by Japanese reformers, and the Meiji state (1868-1912) developed an ideology centered on the importance of educating women to be good wives and wise mothers.
The Meiji state also put forth in legal code and ideology the concept of the Japanese family: patriarchal, with the role of each member well-defined by age, gender, and relationship to the patriarchal head. Prior to this time, a range of marriage, family, and sexual relationships had existed throughout Japan with some variance by region and major variance by class.
The main elements of the Meiji family system as defined in law continued until the Post World War II Allied Occupation. The system was based on the assumption that marriage was for the family rather than for individual love. The continuance of the family across generations was supported by inheritance laws that gave all to a single heir who was in turn
responsible to care for the parents. In addition to inheriting family property, the heir inherited the family Buddhist altar and all responsibility for funerals and memorial services. Although in fact there were variations, the assumption was that the heir would be the eldest son.
To perpetuate this system, children were raised according to their roles. Eldest sons were treated as future heads of family, served after their father and before their younger brothers; daughters were last because they would one day marry out of the family. The bride’s position was very lowest of all. If she bore a son, one day she might become a mother-in-law to whom her son’s bride owed strict obedience.
This family became the foundation of social stability and order as Japan moved from the nineteenth century into and through the Pacific War. Women’s roles increasingly focused on marriage, childbearing, and raising their children to be good citizens of Japan. Men’s roles increasingly focused on military service.
At the same time, from the Meiji period on, women’s opportunity for education and employment outside the home grew. Women were an important part of the labor force, especially on farms, in shops, and in factories. As in other countries during the war, women filled the jobs that men left.
After the war, during the occupation, laws concerning marriage changed. Under the new law, marriage became a union between two consenting adults and did not require approval of the household head. Inheritance and responsibility for caring for parents was to be divided equally among all children.