In Japan men often demand and get custody of the children in a
divorce. Alimony awards are less frequent and usually smaller than in U.S.
Japanese Moral Culture and the Changing Family
In the traditional family, the male was the head of the household with absolute authority
over others. In a traditional Japanese family the father filled the role of patriarch,
much like an emperor-god in old Shinto. Three or four generations lived together. The
family was the "ie" (now known more by the term kazoku) A retired household head
was respected but had little or no authority. Generally, when the head retired, his eldest
son succeeded him, remaining with his parents after marriage and maintaining the
continuity of the family line. A future household head held a status much superior to that
of his younger siblings. A bride who traditionally held the lowest status in the family,
might be divorced if she failed to please her in-laws or produce a child. Though divorce
was rare. The welfare of the family took precedence over any one member and Confucian
filial piety was explicity taught, this was coupled with Shinto and Buddhist reverence for
In the contemporary family, the tradition of extended families living together is
receding. Family life has changed since WWII. The trend is toward smaller nuclear family
units as in the U.S., not generational extended ones, though these are still fairly
common, especially in the rural areas. Typically, mother, father, one or two children in
an urban apartment, father commutes by train to city, wife cares for children and house.
Less than 1/4 of Japanese men say their greatest satisfaction in life is being home with
their families, and many view katei sabisu (family service--time spent with the family on
Sundays) as a duty not a pleasure. The birth rate in Japan has declined sharply. A shift
from the ie to the corporation or business has been significant. Often members of the same
family are hired, there is a hierarchy, there is concern for the employees, and total
loyalty is expected. Companies provide housing for families, managers assist in finding
mates, resolving marital and family difficulties and so forth.
There are still many traditional family practices because the value system of Japan has
proved fairly resilient. The family clan or "ie" continues to be the basic group
to which the Japanese belong. A daughter-in-law coming into a family will be privileged
above a daugher who marries and leaves her family. Same with son and son-in-law. Doing
something wrong brings guilt or shame on family not just individual. In exchange for
conformity to family comes kindness and even spoiling is directed toward the children,
especially male sons. If children are loyal and don't make demands, all their needs will
be looked after without ever asking. On the other hand, to claim one's "rights"
(in Western language) or some reward or privilege is to be avoided at all cost, both in
the family and on the job, etc. Elder siblings still often postpone marriage in order to
help finance the education of younger ones. Eldest sons, though, no longer expected
automatically to live with and take care of their parents still very often do so.
Three-generation families still average between 40% and 50% of the households according to
Hashimoto Akiko in Fall 1997 Japan Quarterly. Daughters-in-law are freed somewhat from the
overbearing mother-in-law but this continues to be an important relationship and the
expectations on daughers-in-law relative to the care for their husband's aging parents are
still very high, driven by filial piety. BUT children still feel indebtedness to their
parents and care for them in old age and the needs of the family still come first and the
roles of family members are still more stable than not. Women are freer to pursue
education, jobs, and hobbies, and may even initiate divorce, but this has placed added
pressure on Japanese women since many of the values mentioned are still in place. No where
is this more evident than in the criteria employed to select marital partners and the
expectations which men and women hold for the marriage, repectively.
The importance of the ie is still shown in the practice of the "koseki" which is
the official family register. This is examined by prospective parents-in-law or employers
to determine the family background of a prospect. The only legal requirement for marriage
in Japan is the establishment of a new joint koseki. Do this and you are married. Omit it
and you aren't, not matter what.
Many families sitll have a "Kamon" or family crest which is highly refined
artistically. These emblems are still put on clothing and displayed at festivals and
Marriage is still centered on or involves arranged marriages or matchmaking. Arranged
marriages are still frequent, even the norm in the rural areas. Many times the man and
woman and their families are introduced by a go-between (nakodo). What has changed about
this is that the interest in matchmaking has remained, but the parents of a couple do not
have as final a say as they did 50 years ago; yet it is still common to be sure that one's
parents approve and know about the family of a potential mate.
A young person may still ask his parent, employer or teacher to serve as an official
matchmaker, or any of these may serve as an unofficial one. An interesting problem now is
country boys who need and want to marry, must go to the city to find eligible women.
Arranged marriages hang on because country men do not have many women around them, and
city men work so much and have such few interests other than work that they do not meet
appropriate prospects unless they are in the workplace (which is why some Japanese
managers are also matchmakers). All of this is complicated by the fact that Japanese urban
women are very critical of the men around them. The thought is that marriage should be a
rational choice and that love will follow. What is considered includes the family
register, the job and company, who he knows and associates with, his intelligence and
cultural sensibilities, what he owns, what his debts are, what his filial obligations are,
his looks and compatibility, his reputation among those who know him, the sort of person
he seems to be to the Nakado.
Whether arranged or not there is usually the "o-mai" which is an interviw with
the prospective bride or groom. This is a cool-headed checking of the prospective partner,
love is not an issue
Women will use matchmaking services, but they have long lists of qualifications for
prospective mates. A typical set of qualifications includes: college grad, not the oldest
son or only son, prestigious job (especially if it involves work overseas), manly
gentleness, strong convictions, attentiveness to others, humor, fashion sense, cultured
and polished, and a wide circle of friends. Also called "the three highs": high
income, highly educated, and attractive Men's conditions given to matchmaking services
are: good looks, woman under a certain age and not have been married previously.
The most common reason to marry in order of frequency: 1) men--have children; women--build
a new life. 2) men-to be with the woman I love; women-to have children. 3)
men--circumstances require it,; women--to find peace of mind. 4) men-it is expected;
women-to start a family
Recent studies show that although 90% of Japanese women wish to marry, 95% do not say that
they regard marriage as the way to be happy. The age at which Japanese men and women are
marrying is still on the rise. Most recently: 29.2 yrs for men; 26.6 for women. Women
between 25 and 29--almost 40% have never been married, for those with college degrees it
is 54.4%. But there is still a very strong expectation that Japanese men will marry.
Marriage brings them the support and stability of a wife and the trust and respect which
Japanese society accords married men.
The newest trend in marriage is for older successful women to marry younger men.
Sexuality and the family.
Japanese have always had fewer moral prohibitions about sexual expression than one finds
in the U.S. Japan has shown a moral tolerance of sexual experimentation and lifestyles
including homosexuality. Love affairs, although very discreet are not condemned. A
Japanese woman's sexual freedom is comparable to that of women in U.S. Abortion is widely
available, and some figures report that as many as 40% of women have had an abortion.
Further, it is not unusual for a woman to have 2 or 3 abortions. The most common reason
for an abortion cited by Japanese physicians is "health of the mother".
Cohabitation before marriage is infrequent in Japan, although men and women (to a lesser
extent) may have sexual experiences before marriage. The ideal is still that a Japanese
bride will be a virgin.
Married women and men are expected to be faithful, although wives tolderate the
"hosutesu" hostesses or bar girls who are flirts but not necessarily
prostitutes. If a married man has an affair that does not necessarily mean the marriage
will break up, and the same is true if a woman has an affair, although it is much less so.
There are no prohibitions on contraceptives and abortion.
Husband-wife relationships in the family:
In today's Japan, a wife's relationship to her husband is more important than her
relationship to any of his relatives. Horizontal relationships between husband and wife
now take precedence over vertical ones between parents and children. Most young persons
have some expectations of a more companionable and romantic marriage than their parents
had. But it is common for couples to settle into separate social worlds and clear-cut
divisions of labor. The husband is absorbed in his work; the wife in mothering. Women's
lives revolve around their children, but may include female friends and relatives. The
husband earns the money, but the wife manages it. The continuity of the family is
certainly more important to men than marital gratification, although women consider a
companionable marriage very desirable.
Wives run the homes in a largely traditional fashion, which means that child-care (few
child-care centers), and care of elderly parents, controlling the budget, etc. are women's
responsibilities, even if they also work. The Japanese family has really been a disguised
matriarchy. The difference between public and private practice is very evident here.
Though wives treat husbands with deference in public, attend to them, allow them to flirt,
gamble and drink, in private they run the household. Increasingly the power vacuum filled
by absentee working fathers has been filled by the wife. She gets the pay check and gives
her husband an allowance, decides wehre the family will live, what car to buy, where the
children will go to school. It is often said that wives tend to think of their husbands as
big children. Many psychological studies of Japanese male heads of family and the typical
finding is that they are looking for a wife to cherish and indulge them as their moma did
(or appeared to do).
Children and motherhood:
The number of live births has been decreasing over the long term. This number peaked in
1973 at 2.092 million, and fell to 1.187 million in 1995. The total fertility rate has
decreased yearly, falling from 2.14 in 1965 to 1.42 in 1995. This means that only 1.42
children are born to every two parents. Adoption is very common and not just of young
children. Often adopt son-in-law. Old couples adopt a young couple who agree to take their
name in return for guaranteed inheritance and acceptance of obligation to care for the
Motherhood is extremely important in Japan and it does not allow for substitutes. Mother
and child are usually inseparable when the child is young, and even later this
relationship is still the strongest and closest in a family. Mothers pay single-minded
attention to the educational achievement of their children. In Japan, the Ofukuro is one's
"mom" or "ma". The relationship between mothers and sons is
particularly striking. Mothers often accompany sons to take college entrance exams, to
choose their apartments (even if the son is married), choose clothes. Mothers do not spank
or get angry with children, but they do make them feel guilty for hurting them or
disappointing them. Mothers-in-law have a reputation for being tyrannical to their
daughters-in-law. Nowadays the opening of more day care centers is undermining the
traditional role of moma. Traditionally the use of baby-sitters was virtually considered
"child neglect" and though this has changed Japanese women still do not consider
child care to be the ideal and some feel shame or guilt over its use.
Virtually nothing is refused the children and there is public discrimination in favor of
boys--they go to better schools etc.
Boys and girls festivals. March 3 is girls festival, celebrates daughters. Doll
collections are displayed in homes. These are handed down. May 5 is boys festival
celebrates sons, wooden poles are displayed with streamers and figures of warriors,
emperors and such are displayed in homes.
Parents and Grandparents:
Filial piety is no longer the cornerstone of Japanese family morality, but most do take
care of their parents in their old age. We should not think of filial piety as completely
displaced. The Law for Welfare for the Aged 1991 says,
The aged shall be loved and respected as those who have for many years contributed toward
the development of society and a wholesome and peaceful life shall be guaranteed to them.
There are a few nursing homes, but most Japanese would consider it shameful to allow their
parents to live in one. Elderly parents ideally live with or near one grown child, and the
tendency is still to choose an elder son, but many parents now prefer to live with a
daughter, since mother-in-law problems are avoided.
The proportion of elderly people in Japan is growing. In Dec. 1997, there were 19 million
people over the age of 65 (15% of the total population). By the year 2025, the elderly
population will increase to 33 million (27%), or over 1 in 4 will be over 65. In U.S. the
expectation is a plateau at 20%. In 1980 there were 1,273 (per 1,000 households)
older-couple (over 65) households and 881 (per 1,000 households) older-single-person
households. In 1995 there were 2,763 (per 1,000 households) older-couple households and
2,202 (per 1,000 households) older-single-person households.
Three-generation families still average between 40% and 50% of the total number of
households in Japan according to Hashimoto Akiko in Fall 1997 Japan Quarterly.--and most
of these are parents living with the eldest son.
The crisis of a growing elderly population for Japan is not just one of resources. It is a
question of who should help whom--a moral issue. While there are fewer multigenerational
family homes, the ideal of caring for the elderly has not changed. Many elderly Japanese
still prefer to live with their children and feel that they should. This is still regarded
as the only dependable form of security in old age. The fact that the aging do not have to
depend on the good will of their children, but rather can rely on a sense of moral duty is
comforting and predicative of security in old age. In Japan, social services for the
elderly are basically restricted to those who do not have close relatives--this is
embodied in the Principle of Private Initiative a requirement in the Daily Life Security
Law (the elderly must first exhaust their personal and family resources to receive public
aid). The Ministry of Health and Welfare in 1997 considered law to fund universal nursing
care, but the program assumes that 60% of the elderly will not avail themselves of it.
The prediction is that increasing caregiver roles for daughters and daughters-in-law will
exert great pressure on Japanese women who are already being challenged to bear more
Tensions between the older and younger generations are high. In the most traditional
family the "Obason" ruled the home. This was the grandmother, who lorded over
the house and her daughter-in-law. Respect for the elderly has been a traditional moral
obligation. In Japan, as in China, age is wisdom. Celebrations for old age begin at 60.
The "kanreki" or 60th celebration is regarded as a rebirth, family, neighbors
and friends initatie the person hinto old age with a red headdress and vest without
sleeves. Traditionally men of this age no longer have duties in the community and abdicate
their role as head of the family. They are "go-inkyo" retired masters. Those who
could afford it garden or arrange flowers and such.
However, the absence of grandparents living in an extended family situation was one factor
which created a discontinuity between generations and lessening of traditional sense in
Japan. But there are other factors contributing to this revision in the view of older
generations. 1) Prior to WWII the Japanese were spartan and frugal (the Japanese were
known for being "savers"), spending most of their lives working, and life
expectancy of 47 yrs. Now the youth emphasize rapid acquisition of possessions, spend
lavishly. BIG difference in generations. 2) A whole generation of leaders had been
discredited in WWII and the old values were blamed for leading the nation to catastrophe
A rather disturbing part of this whole story has been not only the Japanese moral debate
over who is to take care of whom, but over the treatment of the aged. In traditional
society governed by filial piety, the quarters were spacious, the aged were central family
members, and grandparents treated with near awe. This has changed and the society is
struggling to understand how it will handle the elderly.
The numbers of divorces and the divorce rate per 1,000 POPULATION is still increasing. In
1990, there were 157,608 divorces or 1.28 per 1,000 pop; in 1995 there were 199,016 or
1.60. Still, this is the second lowest divorce rate in the world, only Italy being lower
(Italy, 1994-.048). Comparing it with the United States, for example, which has a divorce
rater of 4.57 per 1,000 pop in 1994, the difference is striking. What is striking is that
nearly 40% of the divorces were between couples who had been married for 10 years (showing
a parting of the ways between two people who had ample time to know each other).
One thing very clear in Japan is that men do not want divorces and are very interested in
avoiding it even if this requires going to great lengths. Ebisaka Takeshi holds that the
fundamental reason for divorce in Japan is a deep difference between what men and women
want from the marriage. What are the reasons for divorce in Japan: physical or mental
abuse, infidelity, exclusive concern with work at the expense of the family, failure to
communicate, inability to get along are the most frequently cited reasons by women.
Japanese wives want to be regarded as partners and companions, not housekeepers and baby
sitters. The old Japanese proverb, "A good husband is healthy and absent" is not
really credited very much. Contemporary Japanese wives want their husbands to share in
their interests and attitudes toward life and to work with her to create their own family
culture. A typical complaint against Japanese men is that they are "uncultured"
and do not know how to be "human beings"--Notice the Confucian sound of this!!
Japanese women want independence in the sense of having an individual identity, but they
want partnership in marriage.
Japanese men want a wife who takes care of their personal needs and does the housework;
and sees after the comfort and order of the home. "When I see my wife doing the
housework for me even though she'd rather not, I can't help feeling love for her."
one husband said. Takeshi says, that Japanese husbands want wives who are housewives, good
mothers, and willing sexual partners.
There has also been achange in the reason for divorce. Women used to cite infidelity or
failure to offer financial support, but the overwhelming reason is incompatibility. Men
who divorce seldom give a reason.
In Japan men often demand and get custody of the children in a divorce.
Alimony awards are less frequent and usually smaller than in U.S.