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Family relationships in Japan have seen two phases, dictated by the events of World War II.  Before the war a traditional family structure existed that embodied a conservative view, enforced by law but the war brought about a change in the structure of the family and moved towards more western views.

  Traditional Japanese Families (pre-World War II)

 The traditional Japanese family was called an “ie” and consisted mostly of close relatives.  The family structure was a hierarchy that was lead by the most able bodied male—usually the father or eldest son—who had the final say in all decisions involving any member of his family.  Occasionally “ie” families were forced to look to their kin or close members of the family for leadership and for members, thus creating what is known as a “stem” family. 

Structure of the Japanese “Ie” Family:

·       Size of the family varied due to births, deaths, and marriages of daughters into other families

·       Because members married outside of the family—generally all of the daughters and some sons other than the eldest—the “ie” consisted of an elite group of selected members who were expected to keep the cycle going and the family strong.

·       After the father retires as head of his household generally the eldest son assumes responsibility for the family.  The retirement of the head of the household was a welcomed relief from the burdens and duties of being in charge.

·       Until World War II, the laws of Japan supported the hierarchical structure of the family with the eldest, able-bodied male as the apex.

·       The rest of the hierarchy was dependent on age and sex, which was a reflection of ones status in society as well as the family.

·       The head of the family was responsibility for the welfare of the family and had control over everything that occurred under his roof.

Japanese familial relations reflected the collectivist nature of their society.  As members of a family everyone was expected to work towards the betterment of the family rather than the individual. 

Drastic changes were brought about with the end of World War II that created a more liberal, contemporary family structure in Japanese culture.


Contemporary Japanese Families (post- World War II)

The major changes that occurred in Japan after World War II centered on a greater freedom for women in Japan.  Women gained equal rights and were now allowed to obtain an education and a job or career.  The people of Japan also were granted more individual freedom for choosing the person they were to marry.  Arranged marriages dwindled and people began to marry for love.  These changes did not bring about a more individualistic society but rather a more dependent society because of the changing roles of mother and father.  Contemporary families in Japan are nuclear families with a mother, a father and two children.  The father of the family generally works long hours in the city and devotes 6 days a week to his work.  The role of the mother centers on her household and her children. 

The typical lifestyle for a contemporary Japanese family, with the development of new technology has become much easier and made life much more efficient.  Members of the family now have leisure time to enjoy and have begun taking family vacations in order to spend more time as a group and this also allows the father to take some time off of work and enjoy watching his children grow.  

Typical Roles of the Father in a Contemporary Japanese Family:

·       The father works six days a week, late into the night, often entertaining those he works with and takes Sundays off to be with his family and enjoy some down time.

·       Financial support comes from the father.

·       Because of the strenuous hours of work the father puts into work each week, he is treated as a guest in his own home.  His dinner is always prepared when he arrives, his clothes laid out and anything else he might need is taken care of by his wife.

·       Although he has final say over major purchases and decisions, he rarely exercises that right.  He turns his salary over to his wife so that she can do the budgeting and allocating for the family.

Typical Roles of the Mother in a Contemporary Japanese Family:

·       The mother of the family is in charge of her children’s well-being and education. 

·       She is the most informed about what is best for her children and explores all of their options extensively before deciding things about her children’s futures.

·       Motherhood and nurturing of children are valued highly in Japanese society and considered to be of the utmost importance.

·       Very seldom does a mother leave her children with a babysitter or a day care provider, she devotes her life to them and feels that they will be best under her care.  If a mother cannot care for her children, their grandmother is the next best option.

·       A mother and her children have a physical and emotional closeness that provides great comfort and a relaxed disposition in her children. 

  She is the ultimate authority in the education her children receive and religiously attends to their academic needs.  

The structure of the Japanese family has changed tremendously in the last 60 years and has begun to be influenced by western culture.  The roles of mother and father are still dictated but it is no longer by law and women have more liberty to make decisions about their own futures.

  All of the above information was found in Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan

Bibliography & Other Resources

Project Team

E-mail questions or comments to mkfinney@depauw.edu
  January 26, 2001