Family (kazoku) is a foundational part of Japanese society. An individual’s identity, reputation, obligations and responsibilities are deeply connected to their family. Japanese family structures have been influenced by Confucian ideas of and defined hierarchical social relationships over the centuries. The traditional household structure is known as ‘ie’, which refers to a multi-generational household with a head. Traditionally, the would maintain authority and responsibility for all family members, with homes usually located near the extended family of the husband.
The cultural importance of the family unit is reflected in the ‘koseki’, Japan’s official family registry. This registry regards the household to be the basic unit of society, rather than the individual. The koseki requires all households to report the details of their family members such as birthplace, date of birth, relocation of the family to another municipality, marriages, divorces, acknowledgement of paternity of children, adoptions and deaths. As a result, people tend to be more acutely aware of their family history, and than is common in many other cultures. Up to two generations (usually a couple and their children) can be included in a koseki, which means that when people marry, they usually keep a separate koseki from their parents. People tend to be concerned with which koseki they are registered in and how they are entered, as this can have effects in other aspects of life.
Massive demographic transformations have significantly changed traditional family structures over the last couple of decades. Japan has a rapidly ageing population, with approximately 1 in every 4 people aged 65 years and older.1 It also has one of the world’s highest life expectancies at 87.5 years for females and 81.4 years for males.2 On the other hand, children aged 0-14 years old only accounted for 12.1% of the population, which is the lowest level on record.3 Japan’s fertility rate continues to drop, with couples on average having 1.36 children as of 2019, down from 1.42 in 2018.4
These demographic changes of an ageing population, high life expectancy and low fertility rate means that families tend to have more elderly relatives to care for than children. An emphasis on family care means that the number of residential care homes for elderly is limited. Just over two-fifths (40.7%) of Japan’s households have someone aged 65 or over.5 Many of these are households in which someone elderly is living with one of their children, although this tends to vary depending on the region.6 With the rapid ageing of the population, elderly children often care for their elderly parents, a phenomenon known as rōrōkaigo (‘elderly caring for elderly’). Over a quarter (27.3%) are one-person elderly households, of which there were approximately two times as many females as males.7
Household units today tend to be two-generational, containing the husband and wife with their children. Both the husband and wife are usually engaged in the paid workforce, though this changes once a couple starts having children. In many urban families, the husband tends to commute to their full-time employment and return home late or only on weekends, having little time to spend with his children. The wife usually assumes the responsibility of tending to the children, domestic labour, managing the family budget, and maintaining social relations. In rural farm-based areas, many men are engaged in full-time employment in the manufacturing industry. Such jobs tend to be located in the nearest town, which may be some distance from the family farm. As a result, women often have the added responsibility of running agricultural operations.
Families tend to invest a lot of time and resources into their children’s education. In particular, mothers will often commit themselves to facilitating the ideal conditions for their child to study. In self-employed family businesses where gender roles are not as clearly defined, fathers have more involvement in their children’s development. During their education, parents might pay for the child to attend juku (known as ‘cram schools’) as a way to improve their scores on the standardised entrance exams. Children only tend to move out of home upon marriage or to relocate for employment.
Japanese society has had traditional expectations of gender and divisions of labour throughout most of its history. Fathers have typically been the head of the household and main income-earners, while mothers have been responsible for managing the household and raising children. Japanese society shifted to become less male-dominated following constitutional changes made after World War II. In more recent decades, labour shortages and the country’s rapidly ageing population have impacted around gender and labour. For example, while it was once considered improper for women to work in paid labour, about half (53.3%) of Japan’s female population of working age have a job, with women representing 44.4% of Japan’s labour force.8
It is common for women to wish to rejoin the workforce after leaving to raise a child. However, one study found that while over 77% of university-educated women desired to return to the workforce, only 43% were able to gain employment.9 One significant barrier to reentering the workforce is that companies with high-skilled or high-paying roles do not accommodate career interruption. Compared to men, women are highly concentrated in part-time and low-paying work, with 44.2% of employed women in part-time or temporary jobs.10
Maintaining employment with household domestic duties (such as childcare) is particularly difficult in single parent households. As divorced couples are required to decide sole custody of children, women tend to be both financially and physically responsible for providing care.11 Out of all countries in the , Japan has the highest number of single mothers in the labour force at 85%.12
Women also tend to be more impacted or constrained by social expectations, stigmas and of behaviour. For example, certain Shintō beliefs about purity led women to be historically excluded from aspects of ritual life (see Shintō in Japan in Religion). Though exclusion has largely ended, women continue to be prohibited from participating in a number of contexts associated with Shintō. Women have also faced discrimination in education and employment opportunities, as well as minimal political representation. The introduction of various legislation over the last decade has aimed to address inequalities, though challenges remain. Traditionally, women were also expected to use more polite and formal styles of communication that implied deference. However, in the last couple of decades, younger generations of Japanese women tend to speak more neutrally.
Dating and Marriage
Some Japanese youth may begin to date around the age of 15. However, most do not have much free time due to schooling commitments, and hence may start dating in their late teens or early twenties during university. Couples often meet through university, clubs and friends. A popular practice among some young adults is gokon, similar to a group blind date, where a couple invites their friends out to a restaurant or bar for everyone to get to know each other and find potential partners. Some people may turn to online dating services, a matchmaker or ‘go-between’ (nakodo), who is usually an older female relative or a friend. Popular dating activities include going to cafes, parks or other recreational places.
Most Japanese people marry in their late twenties to early thirties. Weddings are generally considered to be a serious event that commemorates the joining of two families. There are a number of traditional customs that may be involved in the engagement process and wedding. Today, most families get to know each other over a shared meal prior to the wedding. Both Western-style white weddings and traditional Japanese weddings based on Shintō practices are popular. Some couples may incorporate elements of both. For example, a couple may change into different outfits throughout the day to suit the style, such as a black suit and a white wedding dress, or a montsuki (black pants and coat combination adorned with family crests) and a shiromuku (white wedding kimono ensemble). Many hotels or wedding halls in Japan have small Shintō shrines to help facilitate traditional weddings.
Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan. However, there have been steps taken in the past decade towards recognition of same-sex relationships by local governments. For example, numerous cities and some prefectures have started issuing (non-legally binding) certificates recognising same-sex unions.13 Divorce is somewhat uncommon and there are some economic pressures and social stigmas associated with a dissolution of marriage. Nonetheless, divorce rates have been increasing over the last couple of decades.14
Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.