Marriage with the Proper Stranger: Arranged Marriage in Metropolitan Japan

By Applbaum, Kalman D. | Ethnology, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Marriage with the Proper Stranger: Arranged Marriage in Metropolitan Japan


Applbaum, Kalman D., Ethnology


Twenty-five to 30 per cent of all marriages taking place in Japan at present are arranged marriages (Kinjo 1990). Unlike "love" marriages, which are organized against the background of the relationship between two individuals, arranged marriages are premised upon the similarity of social standing of the families of the prospective couple, and the families are very much involved in the process of selecting a marriage partner. Love marriages, by contrast, are premised on the existence of affection between the two individuals entering the union and only the two principals, ideally, need be involved. Arranged marriages in Japan are typically organized by people of higher standing and age relative to the couple. In some cases this also means that the arranger is in a position of authority over the couple, such as when the introduction occurs at the workplace. Inasmuch as the couple's families are concerned with the outcome of the match, one might propose to situate arranged marriages in Japan into a classical anthropological framework of marriage rules or preferences, such as cross-cousin marriage. However, except in the very elite classes (cf. Hamabata 1990), arranged marriages in modern Japan do not structure the organization of social relations on the basis of kinship: there is no concern with alliance and descent as in connection with marriage rules elsewhere. Yet, neither can arranged marriage in Japan be thought of as merely another way of speaking about introductions for the purpose of dating because in the procedure leading up to an arranged marriage the actors are quite concerned with identifying the proper category of individuals one should marry. The question that delineates the problem of arranged marriage in metropolitan Japan therefore becomes, "How do you marry the proper stranger?"

Marrying the proper stranger means marrying someone with whom there is some basis for association either because they are known to a family member, to someone at the workplace, or to someone from one's neighborhood community. The key consideration is that the potential mate should be situated within a set of relations known through prior association to another person in that effective network (Epstein 1961). In emic terminology, one would say that arranged marriage should be with someone from the category of knowable, as compared with unknowable strangers. Typically, the potential spouse is associated to oneself through an intermediary who knows both parties and therefore is able to vouch for the appropriateness of such a union.

Appropriateness is determined by several criteria covering a range of attributes applying to both the principal and his/her family. In Japanese these attributes are referred to as iegara, which translates as birth or lineage. Iegara refers principally to family attributes and to a lesser extent personal traits. These include everything from levels of education, to income, occupation, social standing, physical appearance, lineage, reputation, and etiquette. Sometimes the term kakushiki (standing or rank) is used to denote the same thing. Iegara and kakushiki are compromised by the existence in the family of negative attributes such as divorce or mental illness. These characteristics do not strictly conform to status groups or to class. Rather the overall picture should convey a sense of a family in good standing to whom the other family could relate as equals. Too great a difference in iegara between the two families would result in embarrassment to both sides whenever they meet.

With love marriages there are no constraints against selecting individuals with whom one can trace no prior association through any of one's networks. Parents may often pressure their children to select mates coming from upbringings comparable to their own, and opportunities for meeting persons from a vastly different background in Japan may be fewer than that potential in the U.S. Consequently many love marriages end up looking something like arranged marriages.

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