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The Imperial Family as Postwar Role Model

Yamada Masahiro [Profile]


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.

  • [2016.11.15]

Professor at Chūō University since April 2008. Born in Tokyo in 1957. Completed his doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Tokyo in 1986. Specializes in family sociology, the sociology of emotions, and gender issues. His works include Parasaito shinguru no jidai (The Age of Parasite Singles), Shōshi shakai Nihon—Mō hitotsu no kakusa no yukue (One More Gap in a Japan with Few Children), and Kazoku nanmin (Stranded Singles).

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