Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender, and the State, 1600-2000

By Walthall, Anne | Journal of Social History, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender, and the State, 1600-2000


Walthall, Anne, Journal of Social History


Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender, and the State, 1600-2000. By Harald Fuess (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. xiv plus 226 pp. $45.00).

What kind of impact did urbanization, industrialization, anomie, and the modern state have on families? In Europe and the United States, modernization led to increases in rates of divorce; in Japan they had the opposite effect, at least until the 1960s. Japan is also distinctive in having had much higher rates of divorce up to the 1890s. Fuess seeks to explain why these differences occurred, what caused the precipitous decline in Japan's divorce rate in the first half of the twentieth century, and what were the consequences for women who experienced divorce.

Many distinctive features in the way divorce is handled in Japan today can be explained by examining early modern practices. Most salient is the marginal role of state-sanctioned courts. Only contested cases wound up before a magistrate or with the woman fleeing to one of two Buddhist temples that acted as shelters. Even now, only about ten percent of divorces land in court; most are settled by mutual consent and documented through a simple act of registration at a local government office. In the United States, alimony and child support force couples to retain a relationship long after divorce; in Japan a common term for divorce, rien, literally means a severing of connections. In an early modern divorce, once the party who had moved in with the spouse's family had collected his or her belongings and left, that was it. Today the more affluent partner might pay a lump sum upon divorce, but seldom more. Until the age at marriage started rising in the twentieth century, most divorces occurred soon after marriage, and it was customary for both parties to remarry, sometimes several times in what could be called serial monogamy. For a time in the early twentieth century, divorcees carried a stigma. Such was not the case earlier, and for young women, it is not true today.

What are the consequences for women? In most societies, the assumption is that divorce favors the man. In the Christian and Islamic traditions, a divorcee is damaged goods, a broken vessel. Although many Western countries liberalized divorce laws after World War II, often with the express purpose of making it easier for women to get out of abusive relationships, divorcees are still likely to end up financial losers with a much slighter chance of getting remarried than their former spouses. In the Confucian tradition, men might divorce their wives for relatively trivial reasons, including illness or jealousy; no provision was made for wives to divorce husbands. According to Fuess, "recent scholarship" still argues that the husband's unilateral right to initiate divorce in early modern Japan victimized women (p. 78), yet he cites nothing published after 1974. Studies by Japanese scholars since the 1980s have dug up quantities of evidence that show how women took advantage of divorce. Fuess does not counter contemporary scholarship so much as supplement it by providing a detailed and useful study of how society viewed divorced women (more often blameless than fallen) and analyzing what the prevalence of divorce in Japan implies about the meaning of marriage.

High rates of divorce within a year or two of marriage suggest that getting married was a process of trial and error. Except among the ruling class, who married whom concerned only the families providing the partners, not the state, although there was some regional variation in this regard. Whether a couple married or simply co-habited depended on the region. …

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