The physical ie: a Japanese House

Anthropology of Japanese Family Systems: Gender Roles, Marriage, and Aging

Temple in Japan 2019
Source: Photograph by Author in May 2019

The Ie System

In Japan, the rigid patriarchal ie family system dictates loyalty to one’s family, marriage, and responsibility for taking care of the older generations even in the modern world. Relations in the ie system are based on duty to one’s family and filial piety. The household consists of grandparents, son/husband, wife, and their children. In a very traditional household, the eldest son receives the household properly and  assumes the role of caring for his parents as they age. Joy Hendry states that membership in the system includes those “who were before: the ancestors, now forgotten as individuals; the recently dead who are remember; and the descendants as yet unborn” and the living uphold a duty to make sure that the house continues after they die (Hendry 24). Women follow men’s orders and uphold their duties. Upon entering a new family household, women are obligated to serve the entire household and are given responsibilities. Too close of a relationship between men and women could potentially hurt the house as a whole, and they are required to have some distance from each other  (Hendry 25).

By the latter half of the 1950s, a new generation of Japanese severely disapproved of the older generation and their values (Matthews and White 2004). In present Japan, the older generations wish for the ie system to continue, but younger generations have strayed away from this strict system and have been demanding individual rights and more autonomy. Older generations sometimes will stay with their daughter’s families, but sometimes siblings visit their parents because they can take care of themselves and move

In the last few decades, women have been feeling more comfortable with divorce and are undergoing marriage separations which do not follow the rules of the ie system. Japanese people are now much more likely to be living alone (Ronald and Hirayama 2009), or they demand companionship and love and do not want to be housewives. Couples have begun to “cordon off sections of their homes to be away from each other, create additional private spaces, stop sharing the same bedroom (Alexi 243) and even reconstruct houses. Women have also begun to blame the ie system on their divorce or marriage separation and not the man. In short, the ie system still dictates and/or changes the ways that Japanese families live together, whether it succeeds or fails.

Women Contesting Gender Roles in Japan

Transformations in Gender Roles: Seeking Autonomy

Currently, younger women actively contest gender roles by remaining single, divorcing, and wanting to go to work for their independence, which has been impacting men and their “masculinity.” Alexi reveals that women within the traditional ie system have marital responsibilities and are required and expected by her husband and in-laws to wake up first, cook, take care of the children and do all the cleaning. However, this traditional system is not being followed as much. In Ikigai and Masculinity in Today’s Japan, Matthews shows how the theme of “cultural masculinity,” where women belong in the domestic sphere and men belong to the public sphere has consistently been oppressing women (Matthews 122). Now, women in nuclear families are “seeking more cooperation from their husbands in the running of the home” (37)

Nakano and Wagatsuma show how the media has focused a lot on an unmarried women’s autonomy and even encourage women to “live for themselves” (Nakano and Wagatsuma 138). Women want to remain single because they do not see marriage as necessary anymore.  In a marriage, they feel tied down to their household chores, and would like to go to work and make their own money. By not getting married, women feel free and in control of their lives. According to Hendry, women are revealed to desire a real life companion rather than seek out someone who makes a lot of money and maintains a strong socioeconomic status. Currently, women strive to receive better choices in occupations and education, and marriage is no longer the only way to survive in Japan. The divorce rate in Japan has also risen and many women are exiting out of their marriages if they feel that their marriage is harmful to their independence. By refusing to do chores and desiring a divorce, women exit the traditional ie system.

However, women still experience more insecurities than the older generations, encounter discrimination, and are not able to get satisfying paid jobs. In fact, women have been taking more risks than the past generations, because full-time positions are scarce and marriage is not as guaranteed as often as it once was. Although women are beginning to divorce, many stay in the traditional ie because it provides security.

Salary Men in Japan Going to Work

Masculinity in Japan

In Matthew’s Ikigai and Masculinity in Today’s Japan, masculinity in Japan appears to be exemplified by work, family and self-fulfillment. Men live for their work, go to work for their family, and use the ikigai also known as the “self” as an escape. Matthew states that men still regard housework and childcare as unmanly, although some have been starting to put more time and care into being with their family (Matthews 2004). Childcare has been viewed as a negative obligation for men over the years. Women are shown to contest their gender divisions by wanting men to live for their family and to show more devotion, which has been putting more stress on them. To avoid being stigmatized, men will continue to act in their masculine ways.

Hendry states that company life is viewed as one’s “whole life” for Japanese salary men also known as company workers. At work, they are “encouraged to share responsibilities” (Hendry 154). Japanese citizens take work very seriously and if they do not work full-time or over-time they will considered lazy. Company workers generally arrive early, and feel pressure to stay later. After work, men are encouraged to go out with their co-workers and participate in drinking or go to night-clubs where they can socialize with other women. However, men who even go to work feel that they are living for their family and they feel as if their ikigai can be found in their family (Matthews 2004). Despite this, most families are still tied together emotionally even though men contribute more to work at times than their own kin.

In the last two decades, fathers have been more encouraged to take raise their children and participate in household duties. In Ishii- Kuntz’s article, the emergence of diverse forms of masculinity in contemporary Japan is evident among a small, but ever increasing group of younger men who actively engage in childcare and housework” (Ishii-Kuntz, 20043, p.201).

However, Japanese men will continue to resist living for their family because they continue to live for work and their self morals, and women may be unable to fully escape from their traditional duties.

Technology and AI playing a role in Elderly Care

Aging and Elderly Care in Japan

Japan is known for its very large elderly population, and life expectancies have been increasing. According to European Parliament, 28.7 % of the population are 65 or older with women forming the majority of this range, and by 2038, people who will be over 65 years of age will actually encompass  1/3 of the Japanese population (2020).

The cultural ideals that support elderly care and aging family members has begun to decline. Japan has turned into a consumer-driven and institutional system, as physical care of family members have begun to fade because of the image associated with frailty, emergence of new government services, and the increasing gap between generations prevails. Virtue is the model for all human propriety” (Goodman, 2006, p.220). Japanese filial piety, the idea that the family unit is responsible for the care of their aged parents is becoming less valued and fills only a symbolic role. But elders are becoming more and more alone and feel isolated. “Japanese assume an elderly parent will need care in old age” (228). In the media, the image of “frailty” has emerged more where pictures of elders in bed and ones that struggle with dementia are being portrayed as well as the growing rates of these aging conditions (227).

In the last decade, there has been a growing demand for elderly care and services in Japan. Community organizations, senior centers, and day-care centers are supported by the national and local governments, which focus on the needs of the elderly as individuals. The clubs and organizations offer different activities as well as provide bathing facilities and gathering spaces. Day cares in Japan generally provide a lunch and a snack, healthy checks and group activities (230). Elderly have the option to choose which center they want to attend instead of being assigned to one randomly, and there is better access to physical therapy and services which help can help elders regain their independence. In Efron’s An Aging Population Creates a ‘Nursing Hell’ for Many Women, younger generations try to find acceptable nursing homes for their parents, but have failed because of the growing demand for nursing homes and centers. The centers are packed and there aren’t enough workers to support the elderly. Ultimately, devotion to one’s parents embedded in Japanese society, and many still raise their family members at home even though they could see it as a burden.

Japan's Rapidly Aging Society

Challenges of Care in Japan’s Aging Population

The major challenges from Japan’s growing elders has resulted in woman unwilling to nurse the elderly, many people beginning to view elders as a burden, and the rising costs of care for the elderly. Women are becoming unwilling to want to nurse their husband’s parents and some have even requested divorce in order to avoid this responsibility. As a result, many Japanese women have been trying to get their parents into nursing homes immediately.

Younger generations feel limited by their grandparents as well. A grandmother demanded that her family not watch television or speak loudly because she wanted to go to bed at 7 pm each night (Efron 236). This was deemed as a burden by the younger family members as they are commonly viewed as stubborn and old-fashioned. On the contrary, elders have also expressed negative thoughts towards the young generations. They dislike that the younger generations seemingly are placing more time and effort into raising their children and neglecting them. Ultimately, many have felt shafted by their children, and are now subjected to government care.

Japanese society in modern day Japan

Significance in Anthropology                

Currently, a generation gap exists between all ages of Japanese society. Young people are described as “inconsiderate, self, centered, spoiled” by the older generations, and old people are described by the younger generations as “old fashioned, stiff, and inflexible” (Matthews 2004).  The younger generations are believed to lack the motivation to maintain social order that the older generations have spent their lives creating. Ultimately, the younger generation’s new decisions by choosing not to marry, not working, not raising children are eating away at their once strong social order.

Kin relations especially in Japanese culture are imperative in understanding social norms and how others relate to each other. While they have played a significant role in in Japanese history, family systems and organizations are still up to debate. Some families still value the ie system as it is embedded in a long belief system. Gender roles in Japan have significantly transformed, and the role of the elderly in one’s family has been lessening in importance. The ie system has been viewed as a major barrier to progressing in she modern world, but they still have not yet disappeared. Matthews and White (2004) state that one should read these changes with care as some are not to be seen as negative but should be viewed as social challenges to individuals and families in Japan (199). Ultimately, these societal transformations can help provide a lens into the divergences from long, held cultural ideals in Japanese society.

Family Homes in Contemporary Japan
Source: Photograph by Author in May 2019

Works Consulted

Efron, S. 2001. “An Aging Population Creates a ‘Nursing Hell’ for Many Women.” Los Angeles Times, June 25. AI
Goodman, Roger. “Demographic Change and the Family in Japan’s Aging Society.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12, no. 1 (2006): 235+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed May 17, 2021).

Hendry, Joy. 1995. Understanding Japanese society. London: Routledge.

Japan’s ageing society. Continental Democracies. European Union.

Ishii-Kuntz, Masako. “Work Environment and Japanese Fathers’ Involvement in Child Care.” Journal of Family Issues 234, no. 2 (February 2013): 250-269.

Mathews, G.. “Can ‘a real man’ live for his family?: “Ikigai and masculinity in today’s Japan.” (2005).

Mathews, Gordon, and Bruce White. 2004. Japan’s changing generations: are young people creating a new society? London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Ronald, Richard, and Misa Izuhara. “Emerging Adulthood Transitions in Japan: The Role of Marriage and Housing Careers.” Asian Journal of Social Science 44, no. 3 (2016): 391-415. Accessed May 8, 2021.

Ronald, Richard., & Alexi, A. (Eds.). (2010). Home and Family in Japan: Continuity and Transformation (1st ed.). Routledge.

Ronald, Richard, and Yosuke Hirayama. 2009. “Home Alone: The Individualization of Young, Urban Japanese Singles.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 41(12): 2836–54.

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