Japanese family structure: Ideal vs. modern reality

Sushi. Ninja. Anime. Sake. These are some of the words that people immediately associate with Japan. However, as we all know, not every Japanese person eats sushi, watches anime, or drinks sake (they are all ninjas though…)

photo by uzaigaijin

More realistically, there is equilibrium between those that represent and reinforce the Japanese stereotypes and average Japanese citizens. This same mentality can be applied to the “ideal” Japanese family structure and its modern reality counterpart.

Traditional Japanese family

The ie (家, home), or “ideal/traditional” view of the Japanese family stems from the Edo period. This version of the Japanese family is more concerned with the extension of the household than the individuals. For example: if the eldest son is not capable of being the head of the family, the second son may replace him, or if a woman fails to please the in-laws or produce a child for the family, she may be divorced.

By extending their household, the family is concurrently expanding kin relationships. Another aspect of the traditional family is that the man is always the head of the household, which means he makes the decisions and provides income for the family, while the wife stays at home and manages the house and children.

photo by Penny LamKK

A subtype of the “traditional” family structure is the multigenerational family. Multigenerational households are comprised of the paternal grandparents, parents, and children. An example of a multigenerational household is the extremely popular family anime, Sazae-san.

Sazae-san’s family is presented as an image of the “average” Japanese family with a three-generation household: grandparents, a sarari-man father, a full-time stay at home mother, and the children. Sazae-san is viewed as the ideal Japanese family.

This traditional or ideal view of family in Japan is actually not that different from the traditional view of family in other countries. However, just like in other counties, this view does not always correspond with the reality.

The most common type of Japanese family is the Nuclear family. The nuclear family is comprised of a married couple with or without children and does not focus on the extended family, as the ideal view does. However it is still common to find the husband providing the majority of the income, but the wife may help by partaking in a part-time job.

Influence on today’s society

Although the reality of the Japanese family is somewhat digressive, the strong influential power of what is believed to be “ideal” or “traditional,” can be found in aspects of Japanese society such as government policies and women’s desire to marry.

photo by choonMing

The government is able to use the traditional view of the Japanese family to impose a “Culture of Obligation” perspective towards society (Hashimoto 1996). In the past, this warranted the government’s allocation of little resources towards the elderly because it is the families’ obligation to care and support the elderly.

Although multigenerational families are not common, the paternal grandparents, in the government’s perspective, are supposed to live with the first-born son’s family. Today, however, Japan’s policy in long-term care of the elderly surpasses the United States.

The merging of the paternal grandparents with the first-born’s family also inadvertently affects women’s marriage choices. The fear of displeasing their in-laws causes some Japanese women may avoid marrying the first-born son of any family. Furthermore, women are forced to choose between sustaining and advancing their careers or trading their titles for housewife when wed.

photo by ErtanS

Of course, there are many other subtypes and varieties of Japanese families. Divorced/Separated. Single Parent. Career Wife. Stay At Home Husband. Each subtype of family structure plays an important role in the balancing and sustaining a functional society. Even though “traditional” is not considered the norm, its powerful influence remains present through out family structure and society in Japan.

What do you envision when you think of a “typical Japanese family”? Do you picture the “traditional” view or modern view?

Works Cited

Hashimoto, Akiko. The Gift of Generations: Japanese and American Perspectives on Aging and the Social Contract. June 1996.