The Japanese Family on the Brink of Change?


The Japanese institution of marriage, at first glance, may seem impervious to the winds of change buffeting other economically developed countries. At present same-sex marriage is not allowed under Japanese law, nor can a husband and wife use different surnames. But Senda Yuki, a professor at Musashi University, thinks there are signs that major change is on the horizon.

I was recently speaking with an American friend who happened to mention a mutual friend had just got married. “But isn’t he gay?” I asked, a bit surprised by the news. My friend, in turn, was surprised by my own reaction, and said: “Yes, of course—and that’s why he married a guy.”

This incident made me realize that even though I specialize in the sociology of the family, my own outlook still seems to be bound by traditional Japanese notions about the family. Needless to say, I know from my research that same-sex marriage or civil unions exist. But the notion of gay marriage is still such an alien concept in Japan that the possibility did not immediately occur to me when speaking to my friend. (Incidentally, although gay couples cannot legally marry in Japan, some do employ adoption procedures to secure the legal status of cohabitants.)

One Cause of Japan’s Declining Birthrate—Marriage

The family is a rather entrenched institution in Japan. And gay marriage is not the only variant that’s disallowed. The legal system also prohibits a husband and wife from having different surnames, and as recently as last May the Tokyo District Court rejected a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this provision.

In Japan a mere 2% of children are born out of wedlock. This is remarkably low compared to France and northern European countries, where over 50% of children are born outside of marriage, or to the United States, where the figure is 40%. Moreover, under Japan’s Civil Code, children born outside of marriage are entitled to inherit only half the assets that their siblings born in wedlock can inherit.(*1)

This rigidity in the institution of marriage has contributed to Japan’s declining birthrate, which is becoming a major social issue.

Back in the 1980s, the term “double-income, no-kids” (DINKs) was bandied about, but in reality very few married couples in Japan chose to forego having children.(*2) The idea that a married couple might enjoy a simple life together has never taken root in Japan. On the contrary, marriage is seen as an arrangement in which each individual forfeits many of their own privileges, such as the freedom to choose sexual partners, and enters into a system of mutual spousal obligation. Having children is perhaps the only privilege that marriage itself can confer.

One in four marriages in Japan takes place as a result of premarital pregnancy, a phenomenon known colloquially as dekichatta kon. And for most couples in Japan, it seems, having children is the primary reason or impetus for entering wedlock.

Government Apathy Toward Childcare

Despite the fact that people in Japan tend to get married for the purpose of having children, the government has shown little interest in addressing the childcare needs.

As the vaunted Japanese corporate template began to crumble in the 1990s, the “breadwinner-husband, housekeeper-wife” model of marriage broke down as well. With the arrival of the new millennium, double-income households quickly came to outnumber those with only one breadwinner. On top of this, the subsequent global economic crisis has precipitated a further upsurge in the number of women compelled to work outside the home.

Soaring numbers of children have languished on long waiting lists for nursery schools and daycare centers. Even though the birthrate has continued to decline, year after year, amid much public lament, the waiting lists have grown longer, which did not make much sense. After giving birth, or even during their pregnancy, women have to struggle to secure a spot at a daycare facility.

Scorn for Abe’s Proposal

In light of this widely acknowledged difficulty of arranging for suitable childcare and the strain of balancing the demands of a job with the needs of a family, few single women in Japan seem to feel drawn to the charms of a two-income lifestyle or the prospect of having children. For those who do have a child, the experience is probably grueling enough to discourage the notion of having more. Under these circumstances, an upturn in the birthrate seems unlikely.

Japan’s present government, led by Abe Shinzō of the Liberal Democratic Party, has pledged to support education for children three years old and older. Abe has proposed a system whereby employees can take a three-year leave of absence for childcare, enabling parents to spend as much time as possible with children during their earliest years. This arrangement will allegedly make it unnecessary to continue to subsidize infant childcare, which puts a further strain on Japan’s tight finances. Considerable public funding is necessary to support infant childcare, whereas daycare for children age three or older is far less costly.

After such a lengthy leave of absence, however, would an employee really be able to return to a former job? What about those who can’t afford to take a leave of absence and want to return to work as soon as possible after the birth of a child? Questions like these have prompted considerable criticism of the Abe administration’s approach.

The government has also set a numerical target for advancing the role of women in Japanese society as a whole. The goal is to have women occupy at least 30% of leadership positions in all fields of endeavor by 2020. No details have been provided to explain how this will be achieved, however.

Evolving Attitudes Toward Single Motherhood

Recently, the figure skater Andō Miki had a baby out of wedlock.  It was a topic of intense discussion on television and in newspapers and magazines, with much of the coverage consisting of furious speculation as to who the father might be. The Japan Skating Federation reportedly received complaints from people who felt it had failed to provide Andō with adequate sex education. (I should point out that she is 25 years old.)

One magazine conducted an online survey to gauge people’s view of  Andō’s situation and whether they approved of her intention to compete in the Olympics while raising a child. But the survey itself drew criticism and was withdrawn. Later, a TV program asked its viewers to participate in another online survey on whether they wanted to know the identity of the baby’s father.

As the furor over Andō’s baby suggests, there is still a lot of hostility in Japanese society toward the idea of unmarried women having children. What I found surprising, though, was an emphatic backlash against that sort of hostility. If that’s the way she wants to live her life it’s nobody else’s business, some said. Others deplored the unprovoked criticism and said they completely supported Andō and the choice she made. I was deeply moved by this response, which would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago.

Radical Change Coming to Japan?

Attitudes truly are changing. Even so, the family remains a powerful and largely inflexible institution in Japan. When people finally become fed up with the rigidity of that institution and start living together and having children outside the strictures of legally defined marriage, the Japanese family will confront a tidal wave of change.

Since the 1980s there has been an erosion of the corporate system reputedly unique to Japan that provided guaranteed lifelong employment for men.  And in the 1990s traditional norms of sexual behavior began to give way, so that unmarried people now have considerable freedom in that regard. These changes happened in the blink of an eye.

Even France, a traditionally Catholic country, has instituted alternatives to marriage, such as the pacte civil de solidarité (“civil pact of solidarity”), which confers upon the participants virtually the same rights as legal marriage. In Japan, where organized religion has had little apparent influence on the conduct of daily life, things will change dramatically when the time comes.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 6, 2013. Top photograph: Andō Miki performs in an ice skating exhibition in the city of Fukuoka on July 6, 2013. Photo courtesy of  Nikkan Sports/Aflo.)

(*1) ^ On September 4, 2013, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that this clause violates the Constitution.

(*2) ^ According to the findings of the 2010 National Fertility Survey, conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, only 6.4% of couples who had been married for 15 to 19 years had no children.

family constitution birthrate sex marriage childcare