Education About Asia: Online Archives

Marriage in Japan: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

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By Anne E. Imamura

The changing institution of marriage in Japan may be understood in the context of its economic, political, and individual functions. Although the emphasis on one of these functions over the others may be stronger at a given historical period, all three are present in each period and interact to shape the current and future institution of marriage. This article will focus on later twentieth and early twenty-first century marriage in the context of the broader trajectory from the Meiji Period (1868–1912) forward.

From the Meiji Period through the end of World War II, the family was the model and the fundamental building block of the state.2 The family, prescribed by law, was a hierarchical household with a legally designated head who was responsible to the state for accurately maintaining the household registration documents. Marriages were arranged, or at least approved, by the head—the goal of marriage was to continue the family line. In-marrying spouses (usually the daughter-in- law) were expected to produce heirs, contribute to the economic endeavor of the household, and learn and transmit to the next generation the traditions of that household. During this period, marriage was for the household and ultimately for the development of the state. Economic and political functions outweighed individual benefits. That being said, an individual could benefit from marrying into a good family that provided economic security, and in some cases increase the social status of that individual. To succeed in such a family, the individual would be expected to scrupulously carry out prescribed roles based on hierarchy, gender, and household custom.