Families and Households

The officially sanctioned model of family structure in pre-1945 Japan was the patrilineal extended household, the ie, led by the (ideally male) family head. This model consisted of a stem family—composed of the head, his wife and children, and his heir (sōryō)—and collateral families, composed of the head’s younger brothers and their children. The family head was responsible for settling the household’s legal and financial issues with the help of a family council.

The household (ie) was more than the sum total of its living members. It was also a name, in many cases an occupation, and it included a lineage of ancestors. Appeasing ancestral spirits was one of the family head’s ritual duties. If he lacked a male heir, he would adopt one from a collateral branch. The adopted son was expected to marry the daughter of the house (iemusume), if there was one, and take her name.

When the heir became the new family head, his younger brothers could establish their own separate residences (registered in the jūminhyō, the record of current household composition), but legally, they were still part of the extended family, subject to the family head. His sisters were expected to leave the family by marrying into the families of their husbands.

Members of the household were registered in the koseki, a record of the family’s history of marriage, birth, adoption, divorce, death, ancestry, and social status. Although the koseki practice dates to the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600–1868), it became the formal basis of the modern ‘household system’ (ie seido), under the Household Registration Law (koseki hō) of 1872 and the Meiji Civil Code of 1898 (Meiji minpō).

Meiji leaders found the household system convenient for social control at a time when there was unprecedented social and geographical mobility. Young migrants who left their natal farm villages for factory jobs in the cities could in theory be tracked through their family affiliations. If they became ill or disabled, or lost their jobs, they could return to their villages and expect some assistance from the family head.

Furthermore, the family system was the ideological basis of emperor-centered nationalism. By the 1890s, the imperial household was portrayed in public schools as the ‘stem’ family, that is to say, the main line of a national family called Japan. By making the emperor the ultimate family patriarch, all families would be united under one chieftain, instead of divided in their loyalties among regional leaders. The imperial line, supposedly unbroken since prehistory, was an apt symbol of the nation’s longevity, granting it legitimacy. The Japanese people, by virtue of their imagined kinship as collateral relatives of the national stem family, shared the mystique of the emperor’s divine origins.

What has been described so far is the ideal family structure as imagined under the law. In practice, some migrants started their own nuclear families in the cities, registering independently as ‘stem’ families. Although the koseki makes the family, rather than the individual, the basic social unit from a cultural standpoint, the national census since 1920 followed the Western convention of counting individual adults. The Second World War further eroded the integrity of the household, because the state removed sons and daughters (though not the heirs) from their families to work or fight for the war effort (see webpage ‘Mobilising Children for War Service’). The need for wartime labour overrode Welfare Minister Koizumi’s concerns, voiced in 1942, that conscripting women to work in the war industry would undermine their role in the family system as ‘good wives and wise mothers.’

Interviews undertaken for this project indicate that children growing up in land-owning farm families were more likely to experience the traditional household than those who were the children of salaried employees, such as schoolteachers posted to positions far from their home towns (furusato). The connection between the household and the nation was symbolised in at least one case by the inclusion of the emperor’s portrait in the family’s Buddhist altar.

Not every interviewee was the son or daughter of a house head, but those who were tend to recall the presence of an indulgent grandmother or grandfather, at least in their early years. Those from better-off families also make reference to farmhands, nursemaids, domestic servants, and apprentices. They used a variety of terms to refer to these non-family household members. Sometimes they were given fictive kinship terms, such as ‘older sister’ (onēsan) or ‘big sis’ (nēya); at other times, they were referred to by more generic terms, such as ‘manservant’ (otokoshū). In Aomori prefecture, the term ‘kariko’ was used. Towards the end of the war, these non-familial helpers often left for national work service.

Interview descriptions of family life tend to paint a rather less rigid and hierarchical picture than might be imagined on the basis of the formal structure of the household system. Depending on the family, there might be a ‘strict father and sweet mother’ parental dynamic, or a ‘strict mother and easy-going father’ dynamic. The order of eating and taking the bath was not particularly observed in all cases, although mothers tended to bathe last. However, the heir, who was usually the oldest son (chōnan), was raised to have a greater sense of responsibility than his sisters and younger brothers, who typically numbered between 3 and 7. Some (former) heirs report ‘rebelling’ after the war, going to university instead of taking over the farm or business.

The oldest daughter was more likely to help her mother with chores and childcare. Mothers were hard-working. Besides doing most of the housework, many farmers’ wives would be busy in the fields doing farm work, while shopkeepers’ wives might be busy working in the shop. Women might also do community duties for the local neighbourhood association. Some interview subjects recalled being ‘raised’ by an older sister.

Children in these households did not have their own individual rooms. After graduating from sleeping in their parents’ futons during infancy, they slept in the same room with older siblings. Typically, the age gap between the oldest and youngest child was large, so younger siblings were taking the place of older ones who had already left home.

A few of our interviewees lost one or both parents as a child. The death of the father, in particular, seems to have been a serious economic blow in many cases, though there were exceptions when the mother owned sufficient property for the family to live off the rents. Relatives took in children when they were orphaned or when the remaining parent could not look after all the children. However, interviewees’ accounts suggest that this could be a difficult experience, and some did not feel at home living with their relatives.

Some interviewees described the houses in which they grew up. Those raised in farm houses often described a basic pattern of four rooms, at least three tatami, besides a dining room that might have tatami or floor boards. It was also typical to have an earth-floored room (doma) where cooking and washing were done. In some cases, there would also be a stall inside for a horse or ox. (These descriptions are very reminiscent of those in Ronald Dore’s book Shinohata.) Water was often from a well, which might be inside the house. Several who grew up in farming households drew attention to the large open spaces in front of a typical farm house, which were used for drying grain, but also made good play areas for children. In silkworm-raising areas such as Nagano prefecture, meanwhile, whole rooms would be taken up by trays of silkworms.

L.Halliday Piel and Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

L. Halliday Piel and Peter Cave, ‘Families and Households in pre-1945 Japan’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].