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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


Ronnie Littlejohn

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 ancestors.

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 weddings.


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 aging.

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 children.

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 and backwardness.

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.



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