Divorce After Death: More Japanese Widows Cutting Family Ties


Increasing numbers of Japanese widows are taking advantage of a procedure by which they can sever ties with their in-laws in a form of "posthumous divorce.” This reflects the fading of traditional views of the family as an institution that women join for life when they marry, along with reluctance to bear the burden of caring for a deceased husband’s aging parents.

Divorce in Japan ordinarily requires the consent of both parties to the marriage. But if one of the two dies, it is possible for the surviving spouse to cut his or her legal ties to relatives of the deceased without their or anybody else’s approval. And the number of such “posthumous divorces” is on the rise.

Though the statistics are not broken down by gender, it seems safe to assume that the bulk of those undertaking this procedure are women. The requirements are simple. If a widow wants to break the remaining legal ties to her in-laws, all she needs to do is fill out an official form with just a few particulars, such as her name and address and the name of her deceased husband, and file it with the responsible office of the local municipal government together with personal identification and a copy of the family register recording her husband’s death. The in-laws have no prior say in the matter, nor do they receive official notification of the break after the fact. And a widow (or widower) can file this termination report any time after a spouse’s death; there is no waiting period or deadline for its submission.

Though the paperwork is simple, the number of cases has only started increasing significantly in the past couple of years. The term “posthumous divorce” (shigo rikon) came into use only recently, and the existence of the termination form was little known even among the employees of the municipal offices responsible for handling the procedure. According to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Justice, the number of filings crept up only very gradually through fiscal 2013 (April 2013 to March 2014), when 2,167 of the forms were submitted. The figure increased modestly to 2,202 in fiscal 2014, but it jumped by over 550 to 2,783 the following year, and in fiscal 2016 it reached 4,032, an increase of almost 50%.

Changing Views of the Household

The typical view of the family in Japan was in keeping with the arrangements that formerly prevailed in farming villages. Until the second half of the twentieth century farming families accounted for a large portion of Japan’s population; though some farmers were sharecroppers, many had their own family fields and paddies passed down from generation to generation over a period of centuries. The word ie, or “house,” came to be used to refer to generation-spanning households of this sort, which owned property and supported themselves by farming or working at some other family business or trade. In order to protect the ie from decline, its land and other assets were passed down from father to eldest son rather than being split among multiple offspring. The eldest son also inherited the top spot in the ranking of the members of the household, acting as the leader of the extended family.

The ie system was officially recognized under the Civil Code that Japan adopted in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The code confirmed the leadership status of the kafuchō, or household patriarch, and it provided for the inheritance of this status, along with the property of the household, by the eldest son. It also codified the traditional provision that women who married became members of their husband’s ie.

These legal provisions were abolished after World War II, but the thinking behind them remains deeply embedded in the minds of today’s older Japanese, those currently in their late seventies or above. Most of them firmly hold to the prewar notion that a woman who marries becomes a member of her husband’s ie, and the women among them who did so considered it only natural that they move in with their in-laws and accept various concomitant tasks, such as helping out with the family business, keeping in touch with relatives, and caring for their in-laws as they got older. They expect the members of their children’s generation to undertake the same roles that they did, and so they naturally place demands on their daughters-in-law.

Meanwhile, though, the occupational breakdown of Japan’s population has changed greatly. In the period before World War II, people involved in primary industry—mainly farming and fishing—accounted for about half of the total, but their share declined from 1955 on, falling below 10% in the mid-1980s. Also, the rapid economic growth of the postwar decades was accompanied by a flow of young people from rural areas to cities in pursuit of higher education and jobs. The nuclear family became the norm for the postwar generation, with young married couples and their children living apart from their parents. As young people did not inherit their parents’ thinking about the ie, this concept gradually faded away.

Now that it has become common for women to take jobs outside the home, many wives are continuing to work after marriage, just like their husbands, helping to support the family financially even while keeping house and raising children. Both emotionally and economically, it has become difficult for them to play the traditional role of daughter-in-law for their husbands’ parents.

Widows Who Want to Make a Complete Break

In Japan, people have a legal obligation to extend support under certain conditions to their kin, including relatives by marriage. This potential obligation extends as far as the third degree of kinship as defined in the Civil Code, meaning that it applies to one’s spouse’s parents, grandparents, siblings, and siblings’ children. But a widow or widower who submits a termination report is no longer subject to this provision.

As a practical matter, however, there is really almost no need to submit this report in order to avoid the obligation to support relatives by marriage. This obligation becomes effective only if a deceased husband’s parents file a legal plea for support from their daughter-in-law and the family court rules in their favor. And such rulings are limited to cases where there are “special circumstances,” such as when the parents have looked after the daughter-in-law for many years. Furthermore, she is obliged to provide support only in the form of livelihood assistance to allow her parents-in-law to maintain a minimum standard of living, and only to the extent that her own resources allow.

Even though this potential liability is highly limited, increasing numbers of surviving spouses want to make a clean break with their in-laws. Why is this? A major factor may be the low birthrate and growth in the number of seniors. These demographic shifts have resulted in heavier economic and emotional burdens on younger people, leaving them feeling unable to look after aged parents-in-law.

Let us look at some actual cases: A woman in her fifties who had been living with her mother-in-law for about 30 years was continuing to make payments on the home mortgage following her husband’s death. Meanwhile, the mother-in-law was not paying a single yen from her pension to help cover the household expenses. This widow ended up filing a termination report.

Another woman married a man who subsequently inherited his family’s business. The couple lived with his parents, and when he died, she took over the family business while continuing to keep house and raise two children. But her mother-in-law frequently pestered her about her work, and the woman gradually came to feel that she was being blamed for her husband’s death. After two years of agonizing, she filed a termination report.

A third case is that of a woman in her fifties who continued to hold a job for more than 20 years after she got married but who had to quit her work to care for her husband’s aging parents. She says that she felt increasingly frustrated at playing the role they expected of her as their daughter-in-law—a role out of step with today’s Japanese society, where it has become common for women to work outside the home. While her husband was alive, she was able to tolerate the situation in order to keep the family together, but now that he has died she cannot accept being tied down by her parents-in-law.

Widowed women like these, now in the 50–60 age group, do not share the traditional views of their late husbands’ parents, in their late seventies or above, who see these women as having married into the ie, and who accordingly expect to receive support and care from them. Unwilling or unable to live up to these expectations, they feel driven to escape their legal ties to their in-laws, and when they learn about the termination report they can file to do so, they may take advantage of it as a final resort.

Separate Graves for Him and Her

The fading of the notion that a woman who marries thereby joins her husband’s ie has been accompanied in recent years by a major shift in thinking about burial arrangements. The traditional norm was that the cremated remains of a married woman and her husband would be buried together in the ancestral gravesite of the husband’s family. But nowadays an increasing number of women do not want to observe this custom, whether because of discord with their husbands and in-laws or because they want to spare their children the trouble and expense of maintaining a grave. And this sentiment is leading some of them to consider posthumous divorce.

In a 2009 survey of opinions about burial arrangements, the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute asked respondents, “With whom do you wish to be buried?” Among men, the top choice was that of the 48.6% who wished to be buried in the ancestral family grave. But among women, only 29.9% picked this option.

In 2014 the same institute conducted a survey directed at married people in their sixties and seventies in which it asked whether they agreed with the general idea that husbands and wives should be buried together. The share of those expressing mild or outright disagreement with this idea was only 12.6% among the male respondents but was 23.1% among the females. And while 64.7% of the males said they wanted to be buried with their wives, only 43.7% of the females—fewer than half—wanted to be buried with their husbands.

Tangentially, the changes in women’s attitudes, along with the rise in numbers of economically and mentally independent women, have led to increased demand for women-only cemeteries. And the past 10 years or so have also brought an increase in the number of options for disposal of remains in ways that do not require the ongoing attention of future generations, such as the “eternal memorial” services offered by some temples, woodland burial, and storage in automated display-on-demand ossuary vaults. Also, more and more cemeteries are not restricting single gravesites to deceased relatives but are allowing hakatomo (a recent coinage meaning “grave friends”) to be interred together.

Japan is now experiencing the world’s fastest process of population aging, which presents the country with many problems, such as the provision of senior care. Meanwhile, the emergence of posthumous divorce and the changes in attitudes toward burial arrangements show that Japanese people, especially women, are asserting their independence from the traditional constraints of the ie.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 17, 2017. Banner photo ©PIXTA)

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