Papers & Essays


All that irony in the title I suppose begs for explanation. There are many ironies of family-making and child-rearing in Japan today, and revealing them will help us understand better the contradictions and problematizing of family life over the past century.

First, I speak of plural families, nothing uniform or singular about them. As for discontents, we will look for sources of this when we investigate the gap between the ideal Family and the real families. In Japan since the Meiji era there have been several efforts to construct an official, singular family model to represent and support the civilizing, modernizing, militarizing and later, booming nation, a model that leaves out the omnipresent diversity of ordinary realities.

To be a modern nation state in the late 19th cy meant to be a patriarchal, bureaucratically centralized, culturally singular entity. Essentially to be civilized meant to be Prussian, one of the several European and American models used as blueprints by Japanese leaders of the Meiji era.

Storymaking about the "good family" as revealed in social policy from the Meiji Era through the war years, the Allied Occupation and the years of boom, bubble and bust has led to the moment we are in, a time of high distrust of social institutions, bureaucratic systems and the ideologies behind them and most immediately, dissatisfaction with the constraints under which real families operate.

The second phrase in the title implies that nostalgia among some conservatives for an invented family of past Japan, and attempts to restore the "Confucian family" imagined to be the hearth (or kotatsu) of Japanese identity has led to another distortion, a remembrance of things which were never quite what they were supposed to be in the past. The "sic" after "Home" represents the error in memory making. Stephanie Coontz' book on American families, The Way We Never Were notes a similar problem in "memories" of family life in the 1950s as perfectly middle class and suburban. Was the "HOME" ever such a perfectly Japanese, and singular entity as the ideology behind policy would have it? Or were and are there strong reasons why such a "Family" should be attempted and imagined?

What Is Perfect About Them?

My book, Perfectly Japanese: Making Families in an Era of Upheaval was published in the fall of 2002. I have been conducting research on family life in many contexts since my first trip to Japan in 1963. Over the past forty years I have watched changes and revelations that things are not now nor have they been as they were "supposed to be." Most work on the problems of contemporary families focuses less on family per se and more on its components: women, children, the elderly, and the nature of work in Japan, treating family as a kind of backdrop for these constituent parts - rather than as an integral unit, coping with problems.

It is not perhaps fashionable to speak of an integrated, organic family especially when all the news is of families disintegrating, or barely organized -- sick homes. When attention is given, it is to perceived crises, such as the isolated only child, the obsessed kyoiku mama, the problems of families separated geographically by work demands, the abandoned elderly, and now, the delinquent youth. In other words crisis stories, disassembling the middle class family - the one constructed as model in the postwar years to support economic reconstruction and growth, the sarariiman family, support a conservative critical agenda to restore an ideological base for family by working social policies in the direction of a family that rarely exists. My book takes the family as the core unit, subversively I think, to illustrate how family models and their political uses have not served real families, and why those "official" models were created and supported by social policy - in hopes that real families would get with the program. The implications for children and their future are clear: if the state and local agencies resist seeing and attending to what families really need, then children, through their parents' struggles to conform or cope, will suffer.

The Japanese Family then exists only in ideologies and as a baseline for social policies; real families are diverse in shape, size, functions, class and even ethnicities, and are beset with issues beyond the capacity of official programs. They cope, each in its own way, with makeshift, unofficial strategies and in this, demonstrate that Japan is, after all, an ordinary, even normal country.

Diagnosis of the Sick Home

The presenting symptom that led me into this study was the so-called "birth strike" by contemporary young women. The current birthrate in Japan is cited variously but one recent datum is 1.34 children per woman of reproductive age. This is well below replacement rate and is causing great consternation about the future, from the predicted problems of the only child raised without siblings and thus uncooperative, overindulged and selfish, to the inability of families in the future to care for their own elderly relatives. The shrinking population, politicians and conservative opinion makers say, is exceedingly bad for the nation. There is no question that, with a diminished tax base, funds for social services will shrink too, and with fewer new Japanese entries into the workforce, restructuring and the importation or recognition of foreign labor will be necessary. And that is only a thumbnail sketch of the doomsday warnings broadcast since the birthrate fell to 1.57 in 1990. Might I suggest, however, that if officials want to demonstrate a crisis, then using birthrate data per woman of reproductive age, instead of per married couple, is certainly useful if distorting: Reproductive age in the data-gathering is taken to be ages 15-49: but there is a very low rate of teen pregnancies carried to term and most married women have their children before they turn 40: actual reproductive years then range between about 23 to about 39, but the rate cited is based on a much larger population of women - and thus appears very low. If you look at birthrate per married couple it tends to be closer to 2.04. The uses of data imply the gatherers' agenda.

But the messages persist. Wouldn't it be better, official and unofficial pronouncements have said, if young women saw their duty to family and nation more clearly and weren't selfishly living off their parents as parasite singles and pursuing careers? Wouldn't it be for everyone's good, moral and economic, if they delivered the two or three children everyone is said to want and the nation needs? And wouldn't an "old-fashioned" three generation household be better for the elderly (and their grandchildren) than warehousing in old folks' homes? Those Meiji-period-modelled ie were to be well-branched trees with branch families (bunke) serving a main family, the honke. But with only one child, there is no ie: a tree without branches cannot stand. And the family cannot be the private social welfare system for its own dependent members that officials hope will take the burden off national coffers.

Working with families all these years I've seen ONLY non-archetypal ones: a never-married professional daughter cares for her parents in their old age and appoints a niece as heir. A wife works full time and her husband takes family leave time for a year to care for their new baby. A family with daughters "adopts" a son in law to marry one of them but then the parents take off by themselves to live in Hawaii after retirement. A gay couple take in a cousin's child to raise as their son. These are of course idiosyncratic cases - and that is the point: all families are idiosyncratic.

Ideals have Histories

Official family making itself has a history. The Meiji Civil Code of 1898 established a principle of family in service to modernization. As mentioned earlier, what were then considered modern states, national bureaucracies and laws were created as a blend of European models and national culture- construction. Officials of the Meiji government were sent on mission throughout the country to observe conditions, and what they discovered was to them shocking: they found matriarchal households, polyandry and bigamy, children raised communally and single women supporting themselves after divorces. This, to the elite officials was not family at all, and seemed barbarous. What was wanted was civilization, and the model for a civilized family was based on family constitutions and Confucian precepts imported from China. Their own education had been based on these ideas of patriarchal authority and hierarchy in the family based on age and gender. These elite ideas rarely penetrated the countryside and distant regions, and local practices, not laws, governed behavior there. With the new code, revived and reconfigured moralities and ideologies constrained women as divorce was no longer available to women, inheritance was only through the male line, and the head of household legally controlled behavior and decisions on behalf of the house. This was the modernizing family.

In the tens and twenties, exposure to Western societies, the rise of urban populations (from 80% rural to 80% urban in about fifty years) and the arrival of mass print media and radio, meant that new ideas spread more quickly. As the cities became more crowded, tight living conditions meant smaller families. In the 1930s, many civilians were sent to imperial colonies in mainland Asia, usually as nuclear families, and women became more self-sufficient as domestic managers of households overseas, having to cope with new situations. Laws such as the Peace Preservation Act at home attempted to suppress anti-establishment voices such as those of feminist groups. And the call to have more children for the war effort "umeyoo, fuyaseyoo" came as women, like their American counterparts, entered factories to replace the men who went to war. The ideological need for a Japanese Family was heard in shriller tones as the possibility of achieving it in these desperate conditions grew slimmer.

After Japan's defeat in 1945, the Allied Occupation established a new Civil Code through a series of constitutional laws, and this advocated a new "peaceful and democratic" Japanese Family. In the early years of the Occupation, a progressive social policy seemed to promote women's rights and an egalitarian family. But in the more reactionary, anti-leftist later years of the Occupation, the establishment of powerful centralized bureaucracies such as the public educational system, other forces began to shape the postwar family.

This is where we find the "new middle class" family described by Ezra Vogel. In this family, the person defined as breadwinner is the sarariiman, or wage earning white collar worker. The focus of his life was to be his company which defined him in the so-called "permanent employment" system. Even then, though, Thomas Rohlen estimated that only 1/3 of the labor force was in this so called cradle to grave marugakae system.

The housewife at home in a family where one income could support the whole became the most conspicuous sign of a Good Family. What Vogel called the "separation of spheres" characterized the split in the family between the domestic arena and the economic production. In "the old middle class" family, the family was the unit of economic production as women and children worked in the family business and a son was expected to inherit the business. The new middle class' productivity was separated from the home, women's and men's work became distinct, and children were accredited for successful lives only through education.

During the 70s and 80s, middle class families had increasing expenses for education as fees for extras mounted for families wanting to give their children's chances a boost with tutoring and cram schools. The boom years of the eighties increased the gap between haves and have-lesses while those who had, got more as the economic bubble inflated. But by 1991, the effects of the bursting of the bubble were already evident in the middle class, and most women took work outside the home at some point during their child rearing years.

Families separated by out of town postings (tanshin funin) experience emotional and physical stress in both husband and wife, and what psychologists called the "absent father syndrome" for children. Elderly relatives were said to be abused by selfish cruel daughters in law, the reverse of the older picture of abusive mothers in law. This storyline offered much good soap opera material in this story from as far back as the 1950s when the film director Ozu Yasuhiro made Tokyo Monogatari, a film about an old couple shuffled about from child to child, only finally to be cared for by a widowed daughter in law.

Education, the cornerstone of opportunity in the democratic society, wasn't exempt from problems. Clearly the hypertrophy of examinations produced great stress for most middle class children - and virtually defined the middle class. Children suffered from study stress, from bullying at school, from the effects of kireru, or "flashing out" - the violent eruptions caused by the pressure cooker of schooling, and reacted often with "acting in", if not acting out. Acting in might mean violence at home (battered parent syndrome) or psychosomatic diseases, or schoolphobia in which long absences from school were tolerated by schools trying to minimize disorder or by parents perhaps very sympathetic to their children's fears: sometimes phobias are not irrational.

Minding the Gap

Though affluence in the bubble years could sugar-coat many problems, these issues continued and the overstressed family of the 1980s was blamed for its own problems. One tanshin funin wife, fed up by the long periods without adult conversation, took a job. Her husband's boss objected, saying that the man's stress was exacerbated by knowing his wife wasn't at home - two hundred miles away. Divorce began to climb, causing more concern about children.

In the critique of women as selfishly endangering families, I appear to have inadvertently figured as an agent of blame. A talk I gave more than a decade ago in Tokyo on working mothers chronicled the negative views of these women. Very simply I noted that mothers who work are blamed for their children's problems, and that in many people's views, the key to a good child is a stay at home mother. That evening on the television news, a set of cartoon images "represented" my talk: in the first, a child sat at a table in the kitchen, alone with a poor report card in his hand, a tear falling down his cheek. In the second, the same child sat at the same table, now laden with healthy snacks, and he happily showed his mother a good report card as she hovers over him in her clean apron. Merry White's message was, they said, "stay home."

Why have such images been needed? The bigger picture of course includes those institutions and policies aimed at keeping the post war, economic reconstruction and boom years model of the family in place: at least as a sort of moral exemplar to guide economic health.

Second is the image of the family as supporter to the young who must deal with their primary institution - education. There is a veritable industry of educational reform, of course, attempting to bridge the widening gap between the conflicted goals of schooling (egalitarian opportunity in a democratic society vs. harsh selection criteria for "making it" in a meritocratic but rigid hierarchical system of value) and kids' realities. The latest solution is yutori kyoiku, or "relaxed education" in which school time is cut to five day weeks and curricular content has been lightened to make room for imaginative and creative learning. This does not change the fact of entrance examinations to high school and college, that send anxiety waves downward through junior high school and elementary school. And now those parents who can afford it, will load on more juku, more katei kyoshi, to fill those remaining Saturday mornings with more advantage. The opportunity gap between social classes will only increase.

Where Policy Tries...

Other social policies aimed at correcting problems have been:

1. The Golden Plan and its successors offering some services to families caring for dependent elderly with the main mission of keeping the care home-based, respite care, home visitors, help with meals, etc. The assumption is still that families are the responsible unit, working mothers, absent fathers and completely scheduled children and all.

2. The Angel Plan, created to provide increased access to daycare facilities, to encourage families to have more "little angels." Daycare facilities still cannot keep up with demand. And use of daycare is fraught with ambivalence on all sides: mothers are still seen as the best caregivers and a daycare teacher chided one of my informants saying "You shouldn't be using this service - your child would be happier at home and why are you working anyway?" The woman was already feeling guilty - not for working, but for leaving her child at a daycare center. Many do a sort of juggling routine, one parent leaving a child off, a grandmother picking up the child, the other parent picking the child up - or some kind of neighbor-mutual assistance arrangement.

3. Family Care Leave Act. This program to have one parent take leave for childcare or elder care is useful but so far is mostly used by women and not much by men. Its usefulness to the employee depends on the employer's cooperation.

4. Where other policies fail there are public relations campaigns, such as the recent "Plus One" campaign asking parents to consider their childbearing goals and then add one more child to that number. Another poster campaign showed fathers with their infant children, noting that "real men" are good fathers.

Why has the official Family -- whether the Meiji patriarchal elite model, or the separate spheres model of the postwar middle class -- persisted to bedevil real families? The power of ideologies embedded in social institutions in democratic societies can only sustain itself when families are in some way supported by it - at least, that is what we want to believe. But in this case, it is the power of the social institutions themselves, employment systems and educational systems, and their bureaucracies, glossed by ideologies, that overrides the diversity and change we see in Japanese families. Policies attempt to organize family around "duties" and "functions" defined by these conservative models perpetuate the awkward fit between societal and familial responsibility in a Japan no longer able to sustain the fiction of harmonious function. Instead we see diversity and change in spite of the effort to maintain the so-called "beautiful culture" of family life. Ordinary families cope because they must, and contrive difficult but creative and sometimes heroic strategems for survival and yes, even enjoy family life as they express discontent in the trying times of recession. They are often unintentionally subversive as their coping strategies reveal the lack of flexibility, and the denial of diversity evident in the bureaucracies and policies meant to support them.

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