Japanese Family Life: A Historical Perspective

From the Lecture Series: Understanding Japan — A Cultural History

By Mark J. Ravina, PhD, Emory University

Japan’s 2,000-year-old civilization grew through periods of seclusion and assimilation to cultivate a society responsible for immeasurable influences on the rest of the world. Here, we’ll take a peek at how Japanese family life evolved over 10 centuries.

Japanese family meal old illustration. Created by Neuville after photo by unknown author, published on Le Tour Du Monde, Ed. Hachette, Paris, 1867
(Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

Studying Everyday Life in Japan

How parents raise their children is one of the main ways that culture and tradition are conveyed from generation to generation. When we generalize and say that the Japanese, Australians, or the French act a particular way, we’re talking about habits and attitudes that are first learned in the home. How to eat, address strangers, when to smile, are things you learn at home from a young age, including what makes for a good marriage partner. We begin to learn these behaviors before we are even aware of it, by watching our parents.

Beginning with the court society of the Heian era through today, across 10 centuries, there are three main models of the Japanese family. First, there’s the aristocratic model or the uji. Second, there’s the samurai model, or the ie. Finally, there’s the modern model of Japanese family life.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding Japan: A Cultural History. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Historically those three models overlapped to some degree, but we can think of the uji model as dominant until the 1200s, the ie model as dominant from the 1300s until the 1900s, and the modern family as largely a postwar phenomenon. How are these family “systems” different? Both the uji and ie models featured lots of children and intergenerational connections, whereas the modern Japanese family is largely a nuclear family of two parents and one or two children. One important difference is scale, but the other is structure. Uji were sprawling family units, with many branches and complex kinship ties. Uji means “clan”; ie, by contrast, means “household,” and the ie family model was more linear, with a clear patriarch and a clear, single-stranded line of succession.

The Uji Model of Family Life

Emperor Hirohito and members of the Kyū-Miyake (Cadet Royal Families)
Emperor Hirohito and members of the Kyū-Miyake. (Image: By photographer is unknown – https://dogma.at.webry.info/Public domain)

The uji model was suitable for a marriage politics approach to power. If you have lots of daughters and sons, you marry them all over the place. Then you have many in-laws, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, all over. You can then use blood ties to build a dense web of political alliances. This sort of marriage politics was a central feature of Heian-period Japan.

To allow for these fluid webs of power, Heian marriages had multiple patterns. It’s difficult to describe exactly how marriages worked in Heian aristocratic families because there are so many variations. A husband and wife could live separately, they could live together with the wife’s parents, they could live together with the husband’s parents, or form their own household. Even after marriage, however, Heian noblewomen kept control of their own property and they could dispose of it without their husband’s approval. Heian-era women wrote their own wills. Sometimes it’s tempting to make a strict contrast between matriarchy and patriarchy, and Heian society offers us a good reason not to do that because in the Heian court, keeping women independent in their marriage often served their fathers’ interests. Remember that at the apex of power, the game was to marry your daughter to the emperor, so that the next emperor could be your grandson. Keeping women independent in marriage was partly about securing power for their fathers.

For example, according to Kamakura law, if a man gave property to his wife and he then divorced her, he could only reclaim the land if he could prove that she was guilty of some serious transgression. Early samurai law seems to have enabled women to perpetuate their own family lines independent of their husbands. Childless women, or women without sons, could adopt a male heir to convey property. Moreover, when women inherited their husband’s land rights, the shogunate allowed them to manage the land just like any male vassal would. Women could proxies to do certain vassal duties, like military service, but they could manage the estates on their own.

Hōjō Masako…was the wife of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, and she was arguably the single most powerful person in the early 1200s.

This period of fluidity produced one of the most powerful women in Japanese history, Hōjō Masako. Masako was the wife of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, and she was arguably the single most powerful person in the early 1200s. In fact, the Hōjō family displaced the Minamoto. Hōjō men ruled as regents to child shoguns, and for all practical purposes, the Minamoto line died out as a ruling house.

Hōjō Masako (北条 政子,1156-1225)
Hōjō Masako, the wife of the first Kamakura shogun, became the most powerful person in the early 1200s in Japanese due to the rights given to married women by the Kamakura law. (Image:  Kikuchi Yōsai/Public domain)

Hōjō Masako effectively ran the Kamakura shogunate after her husband’s death in 1199. She did not remarry, and that might have raised questions about her loyalty and chastity. Instead, she became a Buddhist nun, but that was simply a cover to allow her to wield power indirectly. She is sometimes referred to as the Nun shogun—the Ama shogun.

Learn more about the three main models of Japanese family life

As a power behind the throne, Masako removed male figureheads who opposed her, including her son and her father. She was also instrumental in rallying Minamoto vassals to crush an uprising against the shogunate in 1221. What is noteworthy about Hōjō Masako’s life is that she commonly ruled in concert with a male relative—her son, father, or brother, and she was discrete about her power. There’s no question that she was decisive in sustaining the Hōjō and their control over the shogunate. Hōjō Masako can be thought of as emblematic of women in the early stages of warrior rule when women could still control their own property and manage their affairs.

The Ie Structure of Family Life

However, this began to break down in the late 13th century. As Samurai culture developed, so did the ie structure. A decisive factor was probably the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281. Resisting the Mongols required real combat, and having women send proxies didn’t fit that need. In any case, by the late 1300s, women had largely lost the right to inherit or amass property, and families began to have a single clear male patriarch, who had commanding authority over his wife and children.

…a patriarch was commonly succeeded by a single patriarch, usually his eldest son, and that meant that everyone in the household, was under that eldest son, not just the son’s wife, but also his brothers and sisters…

Interestingly, under the ie system, the power of the household head, the patriarch, was not limited to power over women and children: Household heads also had authority over their siblings. A patriarch was commonly succeeded by a single patriarch, usually his eldest son, and that meant that everyone in the household was under that eldest son, not just the son’s wife, but also his brothers and sisters. His sisters remained there at least until they married and entered someone else’s house. Because the ie system did not favor partible inheritance, younger sons often needed their elder brother’s permission to marry, because a younger brother’s wife would be entering the elder brother’s household, and any children of that marriage would be members of the elder brother’s household.

Early-modern laws reflected samurai attitudes. Legal documents tended to squeeze commoner families into a samurai mold, but farm families simply didn’t think about women in the same way. For farm families, some level of compatibility between husband and wife was important, especially if it was a less wealthy family, and the couple needed to work together to make ends meet. Attitudes between the classes towards both marriage and divorce were different. For a samurai woman leaving, your husband and returning to your parents’ house was parallel to a soldier deserting his post. But commoners weren’t soldiers, so that analogy didn’t hold. Instead, we find that farm families also placed a greater emphasis on marital happiness or at least compatibility.

How did modern attitudes shift from those for family life in the Heian era through the Tokugawa shogunate? With the Meiji Restoration, the new government attempted to create a national standard of civil law. They didn’t complete the project until the 1890s, but they wiped away the idiosyncrasies of local laws and customs. To a large degree, these reforms pushed samurai attitudes towards the family on to the rest of society. Meiji law sort of merged samurai and Victorian attitudes towards the family, and effectively codified the idea that women have inferior rights to men.

Ironically, women actually lost some rights in the late 19th century.

Ironically, women actually lost some rights in the late 19th century. In some Tokugawa-era villages, for example, property-holding households voted to elect their village headman, and while household heads were commonly men, widows with young children could serve as household heads; in those circumstances, women voted. But then, in the Meiji era, those women lost the right to vote.

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Modern Japanese Family Life

To truly explore the modern model of family life we need to look beyond the Meiji Restoration. Because the striking change in family structure didn’t come until the U.S. occupation after World War II. The first thing we notice is a huge change, stemming largely from the postwar constitution. That constitution was heavily influenced by U.S. progressive politics. The constitution, for example, has language for equal rights. Women are fully equal to men before the law, and family law must be based on, “individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.” The constitution also stipulates that marriage should be, “maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.”

In constitutional law, Japan is a paradise of gender equality, except that some aspects of Japanese civil law still reflect the old ie system. For example, in Japan, everyone is registered in a koseki, a household register. Since everyone in a household should have the same family name, the koseki system makes it difficult for women to keep their original family name after marriage. While this is technically just an administrative matter, it tends to collide with the constitutional idea that everyone is equal and an individual before the law.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for families in modern Japan is the low birth rate and low rate of family formation. In the 1920s, a Japanese woman had, on average, more than five children; it then dropped to around two in the 1950s and today it’s around 1.4. Japan’s low birthrate is not remarkable for an economically developed country—roughly the same as Italy and Germany, and it’s higher than South Korea’s.

Japanese family meal in 1950s
In the 1950s, a Japanese woman had on average two children. A drop from the average of fve children was observed in 1920s. Today it is around 1.4. (Image: By Unknown – Japanese magazine “Photograph Gazette, May 1954 issue” published by Government of Japan/Public domain)

In Japan, women are delaying marriage and limiting fertility because they can earn money independently and they can travel and enjoy themselves. But at the same time, child-rearing is extremely demanding and government support is limited.

When it comes to finding a man to marry, until the 1980s, a Japanese man with a white-collar job in a major corporation could count on steady employment for the rest of his life, and that made him an attractive marriage partner. But Japan’s long recession has undermined that career path, and in Japan, as almost everywhere in the world, men with low incomes and unstable jobs are much less attractive as marriage partners.

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For years the Japanese government has been in a state of mild panic over low Japanese fertility. Because Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world, demographers see a tidal wave of gray in Japan’s future: A huge population of elderly men and women and a shrinking working-age population, therefore leads to a shrinking tax base.

Family Life in the 21st Century

But things seem to have snapped in 2005 when the Japanese population actually began shrinking. Deaths outnumbered births for the first time since the last years of World War II. As a result, the government has been talking a new language since 2005. Japanese bureaucrats discovered “flex-time,” “work-life balance,” and they began talking about the need for government and business to support working men and women, both as parents, in both law and policy. This is a sea change from the attitudes that prevailed in Japan for most of the postwar era. Now, the early results are promising: The birth rate has stopped dropping and has ticked up a bit since 2005. But reversing, Japan’s shrinking population will only happen as part of a series of broader changes, changing attitudes towards family structures, a new understanding of gender roles, and new attitudes towards work in an era of sluggish economic growth.

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If that sounds familiar, it’s because many of the challenges facing Japanese families are similar to those facing families around the developed world.

Common Questions About Japanese Family Life

Q: What describes a modern Japanese family?

Japanese families are much like American nuclear families: Generally, the married couple resides with any children and possibly a grandparent.

Q: Is family considered important in Japan?

Family is very important to the Japanese as they are not individualistic and so the family acts as an entity for whom the needs are more important than the needs of the individual members.

Q: What is the size of the average Japanese family?

The living spaces in Japan help to determine the size of the family. Typically it is just the nuclear unit living together with any relatives living perhaps nearby.

Q: Do the Japanese put a cap on how many children they can have?

No. The Japanese encourage families to have 2.1 children to keep up with population loss. However, the current average is around 1.4.

This article was updated on September 8, 2020

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