The Imperial Family as Postwar Role Model

Society Culture

Since the late 1950s, when the fairy-tale romance of then Crown Prince Akihito and Shōda Michiko captured the public’s imagination, that much-admired couple—now the emperor and empress—has served as a role model for the postwar Japanese family. Sociologist Yamada Masahiro explores the way the imperial family has molded and embodied Japan’s changing mores, from the Meiji Restoration through the emperor’s recent statement on abdication.

As a scholar specializing in the sociology of the family, I cannot help but view the Japanese imperial family through the eyes of a sociologist. Ever since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ushered in Japan’s modern age, the imperial household has provided a model for family life in a rapidly changing Japan. Most recently, Emperor Akihito has set an example for our aging society by conveying his preferences for a scaled-down funeral and mausoleum and his wish to abdicate in favor of his son. In the following, I examine the changing image of the imperial family in the context of the Japanese family’s evolution and recent decline.

Ancient and Medieval Marriage Customs

Reliable records regarding the imperial family go back to around the seventh century, when the monarchy had clearly emerged as a center of political power. In this early era, polygamy was the rule among the hereditary upper classes (the imperial household and the aristocracy), and marriage between blood relatives was common. Among the wives of Emperor Tenmu (reigned 672–86) were several daughters of his brother, Emperor Tenji (r. 661–72). One of those nieces succeeded her husband as Empress Jitō (r. 686–97). Empress Jitō’s son, Prince Kusakabe, married his aunt (another daughter of Emperor Tenji), who was later to become Empress Genmyō. Even half-siblings were permitted to marry, as long as they had different mothers. Today, marriage to aunts or uncles (not to mention closer relations) is prohibited in Japan, as elsewhere, but cousin marriage is still permitted—a legacy, it would seem, of this ancient imperial custom of consanguineous marriage.

Another custom widely observed until the end of the Heian period (794–1185) was that of tsumadoi-kon, or “wife-visiting marriage,” in which the bride would continue to reside with her parents, and any children born of the union would be raised there as well. The husband would visit her at her family home, and if he had more than one wife, he would visit each in turn. Once the man rose sufficiently in rank, he would set up his own household and install his wife (or wives) and children in his home. The custom is depicted in detail in the eleventh-century masterpiece Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu.

In the Kamakura period (1185–1333), a Confucian-influenced patrilineal system took hold among the rapidly rising warrior class. Tsumadoi-kon fell into disuse, and wives were generally expected to move in with their husbands upon marriage. This period marked the rise of the ie system, under which all property and status passed directly from the patriarch of the family to the eldest son. Although strictly patrilineal in principle, the system did not insist on direct blood relationships; a son-in-law or adopted son could also be designated the heir. The ie system also recognized divorce, unlike the laws of the Christian Church, which governed marriage in the West.

While marriage and family patterns within the warrior elite and the nobility adhered to fairly rigid and consistent norms, customs varied widely among the common people prior to the Meiji era (1868–1912). For example, during the Edo period (1603–1868), the divorce rate in some parts of rural Tōhoku was about 50%, around the same as in the United States today. Some communities in southwestern Japan practiced trial marriages known as ashiire-kon, in which the prospective bride would enter the man’s household on a provisional basis; if she was found to be unsuitable, the marriage was called off, and the woman would look elsewhere. The region in Kyūshū corresponding to modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture was known for the inkyo system, in which both parents moved out to make room for the next household head when their son married. Even today the percentage of nuclear-family households in the region is unusually high, attesting to the lingering influence of that system. In many areas of rural Japan, young people practiced a custom of surreptitious nighttime visitations known as yobai (“night crawling”), and in some locales they could engage quite freely in premarital relations.

As the foregoing suggests, the customs governing marriage and family varied considerably by class and region prior to the Meiji Restoration. Given this diversity, it is really impossible to define the “traditional Japanese family” in terms of a single family structure or system.

Meiji and the Rise of the Codification of Ie

After the Meiji Restoration, Japan embarked on an intensive campaign to mold itself into a modern nation, an effort extending to the laws and norms governing the family. In the process, the lifestyle of the imperial family was thrust into the spotlight. In terms of fashion, for example, Emperor Meiji helped set the trend by wearing his hair cut short and appearing in public in Western attire. The empress dressed likewise, though contemporary accounts indicate that she privately objected. As this suggests, the emperor had been enlisted to serve as a kind of exemplar of modern domestic living.

At the systemic level, the development of the Meiji Civil Code, adopted in 1898, gave rise to vigorous debate regarding the norms appropriate to the new era. At the most basic level, the new system was modeled on the patrilineal ie (household) of the Edo-period samurai. The ie was headed by a patriarch with wide-ranging authority over family affairs of all kinds, from the disposal of household property to the marriage and divorce of his children. Under this system, unilateral divorce in the interests of the ie was not uncommon. At the same time, the developers of the new code were under considerable pressure to incorporate certain Western mores grounded in Christian beliefs, such as strict monogamy and a prohibition on divorce in principle. There was also the question of whether to adopt the Western practice of requiring women to adopt the surnames of their husbands, contrary to the custom in Japan and other East Asian cultures. Compromise led to some inconsistencies in the final product. For example, the Meiji Civil Code incorporated a provision requiring a woman to take her husband’s surname and another permitting succession by the son of the patriarch’s mistress.

Crown Prince Akihito and the Postwar Japanese Family

Japan’s defeat in World War II and the US Occupation that followed stripped away many of the key values inculcated by the Empire of Japan. To fill the vacuum, the nation turned to a new image of family life that promised comfort and prosperity. This image was predicated not on the norms of the old ie system but on those that defined the middle-class Western nuclear family of the time—most notably, a division of labor in which the husband worked outside the home while the wife devoted herself almost exclusively to domestic chores and childrearing. One of the most potent exemplars of this “postwar family model” was the young family of Crown Prince Akihito, the current emperor.

Crown Prince Akihito set the tone early on with his marriage to Shōda Michiko on April 10, 1959. Michiko was the first commoner to marry into the imperial family, but even more significant was the fact that their union was a love match at a time when more than half of Japanese marriages were still arranged (see chart). The media played up the “fairy tale” romance between these two young people, who had met on a tennis court in the elegant resort of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture and chosen one another. Their story had a major impact on social trends by providing inspiration and validation for those who sought a marriage based on love. Soon, marrying for love was the ideal to which nearly everyone aspired.

Crown Prince Akihito and Michiko at the tennis court for the first time as a married couple, May 31, 1959. @Jiji

Following the pattern of a typical Western-style nuclear family, the crown prince and princess set up house in their own residence after the wedding, and the following year they had their first child, Naruhito (now crown prince). In a statement carried by the daily Mainichi Shimbun on December 23, 1959, two months before the birth of Prince Naruhito, the Crown Prince declared, “We want to bring up [our child] ourselves, at least through high school.” This constituted a major departure from imperial tradition.

Before World War II, the practice of raising one’s own children was generally associated with the lower classes, which could not afford to do otherwise. Even in the early postwar years, upper-class Japanese households (including wealthy industrialists, not to mention members of the former aristocracy and the imperial household) tended to rely heavily on domestic staff, including wet nurses, nannies, and private tutors to perform the duties of childcare. Akihito himself had been raised in this manner, as had generations of emperors before him. The crown prince’s mother, Empress Kōjun, is said to have raised strenuous objections to the couple’s decision to abandon this tradition.

Crown Princess Michiko as a Full-time Homemaker

Perhaps even more radical from a prewar perspective was the idea of a member of the imperial family performing such menial chores as cooking. But a series of photos from the period shows Crown Princess Michiko doing just that, standing in the kitchen in an apron and cheerfully preparing what appears to be homemade baby food. Here we see her setting an example as a full-time homemaker, lovingly taking on the full range of domestic chores. This constituted an important element of the postwar family model.

Before World War II, a large portion of the populace had been engaged in family enterprises like farming and shop-keeping, with the wife playing a direct role in production or business activities. Among the upper classes, meanwhile, women relied on servants to carry out domestic chores. However, the rapid industrialization of postwar society drew legions of young men to the city to work long hours in corporations, and the women who married them were expected to support them by staying home and performing domestic duties. The ranks of full-time homemakers swelled rapidly during this period (peaking around 1975), and Michiko provided a role model for this new ideal of Japanese womanhood.

In the publicity photos from around this time, images of Crown Prince Akihito relaxing or playing with his family figure prominently alongside the usual photos of public appearances and ceremonies. Today, we take the idea of family recreation for granted, but in the imperial family, as in other upper-class households, it was customary until then for the husband, wife, and children to pursue their leisure activities separately. This was another respect in which the crown prince and princess served as a role model for postwar families.

Crown Prince Akihito and his family relax at the Karuizawa Prince Hotel in Nagano Prefecture on August 13, 1966.

Role Models in an Aging Society

By now, people expect members of the imperial family to marry for love. When Fumihito (Emperor Akihito’s second son) revealed his intention to marry a college classmate, the announcement raised few eyebrows.

On the other hand, when Crown Prince Naruhito chose to wed Owada Masako, who had embarked on a promising career in diplomacy, I, for one, expressed hopes that their marriage would set an example for the Heisei era, pointing the way to a new mode of family living based on a two-career household. Sometimes, however, the burden of high expectations can be too much to bear; after marriage Crown Princess Masako gave up her career. It seems to have fallen to the current crown prince and princess to illustrate the difficulty of altering the status quo instead of providing a model for change.

In either case, Japanese society has diversified to the point where no single family can serve as a role model for the entire nation. While the postwar model still exerts a powerful influence over the younger generation, many Japanese are embracing the current Western ideal of the two-earner family. But perhaps the most striking change is the growing tendency of young people to remain single and continue living with their parents, even when they wish to marry. What role can the imperial family play in such an environment?

It seems to me that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have answered that question with their 2013 decision to scale down their funeral rites and mausoleums and, more recently, in the emperor’s remarks concerning abdication. In both cases, they have set an example for the elderly in an era of demographic aging and dwindling families.

The custom of the ancestral grave, passed down through the male line, did not take hold among the general populace until the Meiji era, with the codification of the ie system. In the postwar period, the custom of maintaining the ancestral plot has become an increasingly heavy burden, and today—when most couples are having only one child and many people are forgoing marriage altogether—it is fast becoming an impossibility. Among Japanese emperors and empresses, individual burial has always been the rule, from the great tumulus of Emperor Nintoku in the fourth century to the mausoleum of Emperor Shōwa. (Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jitō were buried together in a practice that strikes us today as very modern, but they are exceptions.) The public decision of the emperor and empress to scale down their own mausoleums in consideration of future generations sets a meaningful example.

In fact, both the imperial couple’s decision about their burial and the emperor’s statement regarding abdication strike me as admirable examples of planning for the end so as to lighten the burden on those left behind. Such preparation has become a common theme in Japanese society in recent years; indeed, the buzzword shūkatsu ("end-of-life activity") was coined to facilitate that discussion. Back when families were much larger, it might have been reasonable to assume that one's survivors could tie up the loose ends after one’s death. Nowadays more and more people are taking the trouble to tie up the loose ends themselves.

It seems to me that recent statements and decisions by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are the product of their own shūkatsu. With an awareness that the time left to them is limited, they are making every effort to minimize the burden to the nation. This has only deepened my admiration for them.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 11. Banner photo: Members of the imperial family at the renovated Akasaka Palace May 30, 2010.)

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