JAPANESE FAMILIES: MARRIED LIFE, WIFE-MOTHER-IN-LAW RELATIONS AND REVERSED GENDER ROLES

JAPANESE FAMILIES

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Asians have traditionally regarded marriages as a bonding of families rather than individuals. People are not seen in the Christian view as individual children of God but rather as members of a family. Moreover, children are not seen as individuals who are supposed to find themselves but rather as people responsible for keeping a family going. These ideas are rooted in ancestor worship and Confucianism.

Since the end of World War II the nuclear family has been steadily replacing the traditional Japanese extended family that often had three generations, even four generations living under one roof. The number of three-generation households decreased from 56 percent in 1972 to 29.7 percent in 1999.

On family life in Japan in the 1980s Sawa Kurotani wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Divorce was very rare and highly stigmatized, people got married and had kids without question, and dads went to work and moms stayed home for the most part.” It was “a very homogeneous experience.”

The nuclear family is the central social unit in Japan. In 2000, about 58 percent of households were of this type. About 14 percent were single-person households. Around 28 percent were extended family households. The latter were found mainly in rural areas. In 2007 the number of single households exceeded the married households for the first time.

The average number of people per household is 2.7. The average household income is ¥5.64 million (2007).

Good Websites and Sources: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Schoollink.org schoollink.org/usjf ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Japanese Family pdf file exeas.org/resources/pdf/japanese-family-imamura.pdf ;FAQs about Japanese Families japanexplained.wordpress.com ;Photos japanwindow.com ; Family Issues family.jrank.org ; Gender Patterns in Japanese Family ; Gender Roles family.jrank.org ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Households Section stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp

Marriage Sites: Personal Account monad.com ; Legalities and Paperwork tokyo.usembassy.gov ;Wa-pedia wa-pedia.com ; Mating and Marriage family.jrank.org ;My Nippon Blog mynippon.com ; The Japan FAQthejapanfaq.com ;Japanese Legends About Supernatural Sweethearts pitt.edu/~dash/japanlove ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Marriage and Divorce Section stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp

Links in this Website: JAPANESE FAMILIES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE MEN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE SALARYMEN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE WOMEN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE GIRLS AND YOUNG WOMEN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE MOTHERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE WORKING WOMEN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CHILDREN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE TEENAGERS AND YOUNG ADULTS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ELDERLY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PENSIONS, NEGLECT AND PROBLEMS FOR ELDERLY JAPANESE Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Interdependency in Japan

The Nobel-prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Se described Japan as a “culture of interdependence, of communal participation, or combined responsibility, with a sense of sympathy for others.” The Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi argued that in Japan amae or dependency, is encouraged in interpersonal relationships, which has its root on the interdependency between parent and child.

Sawa Kurotani, an anthropologist at Redlands University, wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “the multi-generational, hierarchal structure of traditional ie (family), amae was an asymmetrical relationship between the young and needy on one hand, and the mature and responsible on the other. In contemporary Japan , however, amae has grown more symmetrical and participants of an amae relationship are codependent. While grown up children continue to be dependant on the indulgence of their parents, parents, too, indulge in the amae relationship with their adult children, and depend on their children for emotional comfort and fulfillment.”

“In he past two decades,” Kurotani wrote, “this codependency between Japanese parents---particularly mothers---and children has been blamed as the root cause of many social problems involving Japanese youth, from hikikomori (‘shut ins" who refuse all social contact) to an increase of in-family and school violence.”

Gender Roles in Japan

Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: As for gender roles, Karel Van Wolferen (1989) gives a terse picture of the traditional/modern female gender role in The Enigma of Japanese Power. In early 1989, the Welfare Ministry launched a poster campaign to stress that the only difference between males and females is biological. The posters showed two romping, mud-splattered toddlers with the caption Tamatama otokonoko, tamatama onnanoko “He just happens to be a boy; she just happens to be a girl.” This notion gained little support from government ministries more closely allied to business and industry, who joined the politicians in upholding traditional gender role values as a means of continually exploiting the diligence of the people (Bornoff 1991, 452). [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 hu-berlin.de/sexology ++]

Gender roles are clearly defined, although they are also being challenged in modern Japan. At the two extremes of female and male in popular culture, one finds the geisha and the sumo wrestler: the dainty living doll standing for femininity and the mountainous icon of macho flesh with the little porcine eyes. Between the two bookends plenty of scope lies in a nebulous heaven of make-believe far from the constrictions of daily routine. Segregating the sexes during childhood and defining the contexts and nature of their encounters later on, Japanese society defines gender roles with adamantine rules. In the realm of the imaginary, the strict roles encapsulating male and female are broken, being transgressed in fantasies which can be singly and variously violent, sadistic, maudlin, sentimental or comical. Transcending the laws of society, authority and even gender, these fantasies reach apotheosis in the popular imagination with ethereal creatures as blessedly sexless as occidental angels. (Bornoff 1991, 437). ++

Reversed Gender Roles in Japan

Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: The public gender roles, however, are reversed when one steps inside the Japanese home. Typically, the wife handles and completely controls the household finances. She gives her husband a monthly allowance and has total control over the rest of the family income. Half of the husbands in one survey reported they were dissatisfied with the size of their allowance, but could do little if anything about it. While the husband and wife may have a joint bank account and automatic teller machines are available, wives often do not share access to these with their husbands (Kristoff 1996b). [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 hu-berlin.de/sexology ++]

Gender definitions in Japan can transcend the anatomical; masculine and feminine attributes can fade or fuse through conventions. This is most clearly seen in public rituals, for instance, when the emperor becomes a female incarnation of the sun goddess Amaterasu during the daijosai enthronement ceremony (See Bornoff 1991, 15-16, for the legend of Amaterasu and Ama-no-Uzume, the Heavenly Alarming Female). Gender reversal is also common in both traditional theater and modern cinema. After centuries of evolution, kabuki became a sophisticated form of theater in which the all-male cast plays all roles. Kabuki theater has long found a female equivalent in certain geisha theatricals comprising dances and playlets in which some of the female cast adopt male roles. ++

In Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film Tenkosei (“Transfer Students”), a 1983 offbeat youth comedy hit about junior-high-school lovers who undergo a kind of Kafka-like metamorphosis when the girl’s soul enters the boy’s body, and vice versa, and are forced to confront their awakening sexuality, the characters adopt the physical and social gender roles of the other. Similarly, the famed Takarazuka Young Girls Opera, founded in 1914, embraces many older male-role superstars with female actors performing in braided pantomime in military uniforms, tuxedos, cowboy garb, and samurai armor, blue cheeks, and mustaches. The Takarazuka Opera is part of a virtuous theme park called Family Land, “a florid world of Tinseltown baroque in pink, a feminine Disneyland with rose-colored bridges spanning artificial water courses.” In 1987, when Takarazuka unsuccessfully pushed for recognition as a traditional art form to gain tax exemption, male traditionalists were quick to point out that geisha theater provided the proper traditional female counterpoint to male kabuki (see also Section 7 on cross-dressing, gender-crossing, and transsexualism; Bornoff 1991, 436-439). ++

In recent years, a new phenomenon has appeared in Japan’s vibrant big city night life that may echo other signals noted in this chapter suggesting that traditional Japanese gender roles are changing. A 1996 New York Times report by Miki Tanikawa focused on New Ai (“New Love”), the largest of Tokyo’s estimated 200 “host clubs.” The host clubs are a variation of the ubiquitous clubs where businessmen regularly unwind in the company of charming young women, except that the traditional gender roles are reversed and sex is not part of the host club scene. In the host clubs, it is the women who are flattered and flirted with by attractive men of their choice. The clientele are usually the wives of wealthy men or hostesses at the businessmen’s clubs where they spend their working hours pampering male clients. On a busy night, New Ai entertains more than 300 customers in its rooms elaborately decorated with rococo-style furniture, statues, and chandeliers. A band provides music ranging from standard jazz numbers to Japanese love songs. Unlike their male counterparts, the host clubs are strictly for companionship and nonsexual entertainment. Still, an evening of flattery, chatting, drinking, and dancing is not cheap. An evening may cost the equivalent of five hundred American dollars or more. Regular clients may run up monthly bills of three or four thousand dollars. ++

Traditional values are nevertheless evident in the absence of sexual activity and in the secrecy women are expected to exercise in their visit to a host club. Japanese men can have an open night life, including visits to the sexual hot spots known as soaplands. Japanese women do not have this freedom. Despite their efforts to defy social conventions, clients of the host clubs often choose a host and remain devoted to him for years, sometimes showering him with expensive gifts to express their affection (Tanikawa 1996).

Married Life in Japan

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In the old days, it was customary for a man to keep a mistress if his wife couldn't bear children but the marriages was regarded as the most important relationship. If the mistress bore a child, the child often went to live with husband and wife.

According to a study by the University of Michigan and the Tokyo University Hospital, American couples begin married life very much in love but grow apart as they get older and have fairly independent lives by the time they retire. Japanese couples in arranged marriages, on the other hand, begin life together as virtual strangers, don't see each other much during the husband's working life, and finally get to know one another after retirement.

One study found that after a couple gets married demands made on women give them little time on their own while there is little change to demands made on men’s time.

In Japanese there are at east 17 words for husband, including otto, papa, uchi no hito and danna, and 65 for wife, including kakaa, nyobo, gusai, tsuma and yama no kamim.

A new law expected to go into full effect in June 2010 allows men to take off time within eight weeks after a child’s birth and to take off a second round of leave at a later date. It also removes the stipulation that bars men with stay-at-home wives to take child care leave. It is thought that even with laws like this on the books few men will take advantage of them because of pressures from the companies they work for.

Many companies provide male employees with a 10 percent marriage allowance and cheap housing.

Married Life Problems in Japan

“Narita divorce” refers to a short lived marriage in which barely acquainted newlyweds fly off on their honeymoon and by they the return via Narita airport they are ready to split up.

In a 2006 study, three out of four married people in their 30s and 40s said they felt exhausted at home and more than 60 percent said their spouse was the cause.

Many couples have long distance marriages. When a husband gets transferred for his job he moves while his wife and family remain behind. He commutes to his house on the weekends.

Husbands and wives are judged as a team. If a man makes some mistakes or faux paux his wife is expected to apologize for him and a husband is expected to do the same if his wife makes a mistake. If a woman acts poorly as guest and complains or gets angry her husband is expected t apologize for her. If he doesn’t he is seen as being just as ill-mannered as she is. If a husband makes a reservation and fails to show up the wife is expected to apologize for him.

In November 2008, a 39-year-old company employee was set to get married even though he already had a wife. His solution for getting out of the predicament? Burn down the hotel where his wedding was set to take place.

Patience Key to Happy Married Life in Japan

In November 2012, Jiji Press reported: “A survey has found that 85 percent of married people in Japan believe patience is the key to happy married life. The survey, conducted via the Internet by major household products maker Lion Corp., covered 500 married people aged between 25 and 49.

Among respondents, 86.6 percent said they think they and their spouses are happy couples compared with couples in their neighborhoods. However, 38.1 percent of these couples said they suffered stomach pains due to stress related to their spouses. Of all female respondents, 67.2 percent said they try to avoid complaining to avoid quarreling with their husbands. The rate stood at 81.2 percent among male respondents. According to the survey, the phrase 34.5 percent of the women most avoid saying to their husbands is "earn more money.”

Japanese Married Couples and Their Parents

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Many newlywed Japanese couples, especially in the countryside, move in with the husband's parents after they get married and the wife's mother-in-law helps with the rearing of the children. It is often the duty of wife to take care or her husbands parents when they get old,

Some families share a duplex-style house with separate entrance doors with their elderly parents. Some nuclear families have a grandmother living with them.

These customs are changing. In 1970 more than 75 percent of older Japanese lived with their parents. In 1999 about 56 percent did. Many have been moved into retirement or nursing homes, something that would have been considered sacrilegious a few years ago. Others live on their own, primarily in rural areas.

Reasons why married couples no longer live with their parents include the lure of the cities, job transfers and the desire of women to work and have more independence.

Wife and Mother-in-Law Relationship in Japan

Traditionally, when a man moved into his parent’s house with his wife, his wife was expected to be a kind or servant to her mother-in-law and in some cases couldn't even leave the house without her mother-in-law’s permission. This naturally created a lot of friction and wives have traditionally not liked their mother-laws.

These days many women refuse to live with their mother-in-laws. Explaining why she moved her family out of her in-laws house one woman told the New York Times, "It wasn't anything in particular just an accumulation of things that suddenly exploded. I just thought it was my own life and I have to live it before it's crushed."

Some wives escape the mother-in-law trap by convincing their husbands to move in with her family and even taking her family’s name and accepting the responsibility of caring for her parents in old age. Many elderly people like the system because they can live with a daughter they know rather than a potentially hostile daughter-in-law. Husbands who live in these household are called "apple-polishers," which means they are expected to respect their in-laws needs because if they don't they risk getting thrown out of the house.

Japanese Family Life

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Men are expected be breadwinners and 100 percent devoted to their employers. Women are expected to 100 percent devoted to their families. In a typical Japanese family the father is gone from the home much of the time, working very long hours, while the mother is stuck at home, raising the kids by herself.

Japanese families often sleep together in one room or the mother sleeps with the children and the father sleeps in a different room. Japanese families also often bath together or it’s the father’s responsibility to bath with the children after dinner before they go to bed.

Sometimes married couples rarely see each other. The husbands leaves early in the morning for work and stays out in the evening socializing with business associates, sometimes not even coming home. Many work on Saturday, and by the time Sunday rolls around they are so exhausted they have little energy to play with their children, let alone take their wife to a nice restaurant, and all they want to do is sleep or veg out.

One study found that 40 percent of married people spend 30 minutes or less talking to their spouses each day and one third of them don’t feel any love for their spouse. A total of 28 percent said they did not converse at all with their spouses, Among those who talked more than 30 minutes with spouses 94.5 percent said they loved their spouses. The figure dropped to 66 percent among those that talked 30 minute or less with spouses.

A new generation of Japanese married couples called shinjinuri, or “new breed of human being,” are spurning the traditional Japanese work ethic. The men refuse to work on Saturday, preferring instead to go to the beach or the mountains with their families.

One survey found that households with an income of $80,000 or more spend three times more on extracurricular activities such as juku for their kids than families that earn less than $40,000.

More Single Member Households Than Families

The 2010 census saw for the first time single-person households account for more than 30 percent of the nation's total, surpassing that of households consisting of a married couple and their child or children. At the same time, an increasing number of people described having weaker ties, even with their own families. The term "bondless society" began to spread. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 12, 2011]

The Asahi Simbun reported: “Japan is rapidly becoming a nation in which the number of single-member households exceeds that of typical family households. That is defined as one with two parents and children. Data from Japan’s October 2010 census highlights increases in the ratio of single-member households as well as the ratio of those who never married and shows that the number of single-member households exceeds that of family households for the first time.” [Source: Asahi Shimbun, January 4, 2011]

“The trend toward single-member households will only increase. And, obviously, for a good number of people that will be a matter of choice. One in four men in their 50s and 60s will live alone, and one in three men will have never married by 50, according to Katsuhiko Fujimori, a senior researcher at the Mizuho Information & Research Institute. At the same time, elderly people who live alone tend to become socially isolated and often become targets of crime or end up vulnerable to various risks in society.” [Ibid]

March 2011 Disaster Brings Couples and Families Closer Together

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Since getting married in November 2011, Akiko Saijo has often found herself talking with her husband into the late night as they have dinner in the remodeled dining room of their house in Yokohama. "I've never imagined my life would be like this," the 45-year-old said, laughing. Saijo met her husband, a 55-year-old company employee, through an acquaintance about a year ago. Although they started dating, she was reluctant to marry him. "I thought it'd be more comfortable to live alone rather than trying to get along with each other's relatives," she recalled. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 12, 2011]

Her notion, however, completely changed following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. "As a family, we can share everything--pleasures and hardships," she said. "I wanted to take advantage of my luck [meeting him] and take our relationship to the next level." Saijo's husband proposed to her two weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake, despite his own hesitation to marry before the disaster. Saijo immediately accepted his proposal.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami, however, prompted many people like Saijo to take action and marry their loved ones. According to O-net, Inc., a major marriage matching service company, the number of new members last year increased by more than 30 percent compared with the year before. The company also made more successful matches among its members last year.

Another trend in the housing sector also suggests more people are seeking better family ties. The number of households consisting of three generations fell to about 7 percent in 2010, according to government statistics. Yet since the earthquake, the lifestyle seems to be regaining popularity, mainly in urban areas.The housing sector has been enjoying increased sales of houses for three-generation families--so much so that some newcomers have been prompted to start their own businesses in the niche market.

Some local governments are also encouraging residents to live in housing accommodating three-generation families. The Chiba municipal government, for example, provides subsidies for building or remodeling houses to accommodate a couple, their children and their aging parents. "Working couples can rely on their parents to help take care of their children, while their aging parents can feel at peace [living together with their family]," said an employee in charge of promoting housing for extended families at Asahi Kasei Homes Corp. "With grandchildren placed at the nucleus of a family, members can enjoy stronger ties."

Prof. Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University said members of younger generations already had a strong desire to get married and start families even before the Great East Japan Earthquake. The disaster has strengthened this tendency, the family sociologist said. "Nonetheless, the general trend remains unchanged: We'll have an aging population with declining birthrates, as well as increased numbers of unmarried people," Yamada said.

Meanwhile, more and more people, mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area, have become interested in becoming foster parents. Workshops for prospective foster parents had double the usual number of participants for several months following the quake. The National Foster Parent Association has also received more than 400 inquiries since the disaster. Prof. Mami Iwakami of the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, pointed out that traditional family values--where only blood relatives can rely on each other, or people cannot become a family unless living together--will face some limitations. "I believe more and more people will look for various forms of 'family' from now on," the family sociologist said.

'Family' Relationships in Communal Living

In the western Tokyo city of Tama, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, laughter was heard coming from a low-rise condominium with windows lit up at dusk. The delicious smell of miso soup lingered in a dining area on the first floor where Teppei Ohashi, 38, and his wife Kana, 28, were putting fish on more than 20 plates. Their daughter, Sakisai, who was born in March, was held by Yasuko Jojima, 76. She looks like her real grandmother but there is no family relationship between them. "I keep busy taking care of her so I won't go senile," Jojima said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 3, 2012]

The condo is a "collective house," arranged by Collective Housing Corp., a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization. Though they have private baths, toilets and kitchens, residents share communal areas for dining, laundry and some other daily activities. The building is unique in that all of the residents are involved in its administration and management. They take turns doing such things as cleaning shared spaces, cooking and watering a vegetable garden. [Ibid]

“A total of 28 people in 17 households live in the building. Their relationships are closer than that of neighbors but not as close as those of family. A wide variety of people from different generations--from the elderly to young couples of child-rearing age--chose to live together to build loose bonds with each other. [Ibid]

“Jojima moved into the collective house last October after leaving her house in Osaka where she had lived for 40 years. Her husband died seven years ago. She had many friends in Osaka but decided to move to Tokyo, where her son lives, in case her health suddenly deteriorates. But she had no plans to live with her son. "I want to have free time and live independently [from my family] as long as I'm healthy," Jojima said. After careful thought, she decided to live with her current "family.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) 2) 3) Ray Kinnane, 4) Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2014

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