Up to the post-war period the husband was socially and legally the head of the household, as well as being responsible for the welfare of all members. The eldest son took over this role, and its prestige, once the father retired. The son’s wife was at the lowest level within the household. Over the decades since, there have been legal changes and a substantial watering-down of these previously strictly adhered to roles within the family (kazoku).
However, it’s still common for the eldest son, or the son if only one, to inherit the family home and with it the responsibility of looking after his parents in old age. As this duty tends to fall in large part on the son’s wife, women who entertain the prospect of marriage to an eldest or only son are likely to give almost equal consideration to the personality traits of the mother, as they know there’s some chance life will ultimately be shared with her too, plus any children, and women are well aware of the reputation Japanese mothers have for fastidiously looking after their sons.
As Japan isn’t a welfare society, the responsibility to take care of the elderly falls largely on family members, and is a strong reason why many couples want a son. To continue the family name is another main reason, although to get around this problem the old practice of a man adopting his wife’s family name upon marriage still sometimes occurs.
If a son is the first born, it’s increasingly common for a couple to call it quits there. If a daughter, they may end up having more children than originally planned, so families of two or three girls can be found. From time to time can also be found a family of five girls, at which point the parents had finally given up having a son.
The vast majority of Japan’s population are members of the middle class, with less of a wealth gap between this level and the wealthy than is found in other developed nations. The system of inheritance tax means that, for the more wealthy, only a portion of their acquired wealth can be passed on from one generation to the next, so in a financial sense strong egalitarianism prevails. This is not the case in a social sense though, as people exhibit a strict observance of their level in society when addressing or greeting each other.
Some families are accorded respect and status for historical reasons, such as if their ancestors were a well-known or famous family. However, in most cases a man’s professional standing, the nature of his job, or the position he holds in his company, all of which can emanate from the university he attended, determine how he and his wife are related to in society.
For example, in one family the husband may have graduated from a low to medium level university, and worked his way up to be a supervisor or manager in a small industrial or commercial business. This family’s social network would be largely local, and due only to family connections if extending further. Its children would go to public schools nearby, it would eat mostly Japanese style food, and would holiday within Japan, perhaps just regionally. The family next door might be headed by a man who graduated from a prestigious university, who is a senior manager at a large trading or manufacturing company, whose children attend private schools, who often dine out at traditional Japanese and international cuisine restaurants, and who holiday in Europe.
Such men and their wives would be polite and outwardly friendly when meeting outside, but because of the difference in backgrounds, it’s unlikely the two families would become good friends. The different social standing they have would be reflected by the extent and nature of their actions, such as bowing and spoken words, when exchanging greetings.
In a contemporary Japanese family, about 15% of which are three generational, in theory greatest respect is accorded to grandparents and the father, followed by the eldest male child, other male children, then daughters, with the wife being at the bottom. When taking the nightly bath, because the same water is used to soak in, this is also often the bathing sequence observed.
Despite this apparent exalted position in the home of the father, in reality he can become somewhat of an outsider, especially if a long commute to work necessitates an early departure and late return. This trend became prevalent during the post-war rebuilding phase when, due to extended absences from home on weekdays, and not much time spent with the family on weekends, the father’s role in many households was minimised. The mother’s role correspondingly increased, including control of household finances, all weekly purchases and matters connected with the children’s education. The father became breadwinner first and foremost.
This practice began easing from the early 1980s, especially among younger married couples, and the trend continues for younger fathers to spend more time with their families. However a return to harder economic times placed pressure on many segments of the workforce to work longer, so there’s still less joint handling of everyday family matters by both parents than in the West. Job transfers (tanshin funin) continue as a common feature of corporate life, when usually the man only will move with his job, the rest of the family staying behind so as not to disrupt schooling. Many companies seem to give little consideration to the needs of the family when informing an employee he is to be transferred, with as little as two weeks’ notice often being given prior to the forced move.
Open showing of affection among family members in the manner taken for granted in the West is not part of Japanese family life. Babies and young children up to early primary school age are hugged, and babies kissed, but after that physical touching as a sign of affection is limited to a pat on the back and a brief hug, by grandparents and parents. There is no kissing, on the lips or cheeks, between children and parents or among siblings.
A family man’s life is dominated by his work, and all matters connected with his job, including socialising, are usually kept separate from other family members. Apart from visits to extended family members locally or further afield, such as for special family gathering times and weddings, and some shopping on Sundays, it isn’t common for husbands and wives to socialise together. A woman’s life is usually quite separate from and unfettered by her husband.
From elementary school years, children’s lives are also quite distinct and busy, with participation in school club activities, attendance at cram schools and other extracurricular classes keeping them away from home for long hours on many days.
From early teens children are drawn further from their families, with as a result many families seldom eating or pursuing social activities together, apart from some of the occasions listed above celebrated together.
Yet the family has always been and continues to be the main pillar of Japanese society. In a society where the group reigns supreme in dealings between people, the family is the first group to which people belong, and to which they feel a strong sense of allegiance. Official government and broader community thinking still is that the family, above all others, is responsible for the well-being of all its members, an attitude that has enabled the government to avoid incurring the magnitude of social welfare expenditure that is a hallmark of Western, especially European, societies.
This situation, and the reluctance of the Japanese to seek outside assistance, creates a mindset to government welfare quite different from that prevailing in the West: that rather than actively seek out any government assistance should a need ever arise, many people are either unaware of what they might be entitled to, wouldn’t consider that government assistance exists for their need, or out of a sense of pride refuse to avail themselves of help.
Some people, especially the elderly, still believe that if they can’t get the help they need from their family, no help is available. Newspaper articles occasionally indicate how this thinking can have tragic results, reporting of elderly people, cut off from their family or not having any, dying from hunger, the cold or the heat due to lack of money, and no effort to seek assistance.