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The Japanese Family Faces Twenty-first Century Challenges

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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.1 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.2

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.



1. For a discussion of this, see Liddle, Joanna, and Sachiko Nakajima, Rising Suns, Rising Daughters. (London and New York: Zed Books, 2000).

2 . Liddle and Nakajima, op.cit., 32–39 .