Power, Family, and Filial Responsibility Related to Elder Care in Rural Japan

By Traphagan, John W. | Care Management Journals, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Power, Family, and Filial Responsibility Related to Elder Care in Rural Japan


Traphagan, John W., Care Management Journals


This article explores the discourse on filial responsibility as it intersects with familial roles and power relationships as represented by women living in rural Japan. Using case studies, I consider some of the intergenerational and intragenerational issues that arise as Japanese women contemplate or attempt to cope with care of elder parents and consider the manner in which the concept of filial piety, or filial responsibility, is expressed and conceptualized in relation to these issues. I argue that many continue to think about elder care in ways that emphasize the responsibility of children to care for their parents, but that the discourse on filial piety is continually constructed and reconstructed as people provide and contest roles associated with elder care, both from the perspective of the child and from that of the parents. To explore these issues, I consider the cases of two women who were facing issues related to provision of care to elder parents and who structured these in terms of notions about filial responsibility. The cases were obtained during extended fieldwork in an agricultural community in northern Japan.

Keywords: Japan; elder care; filial piety; women; gender

A common assumption among many scholars conducting research on aging and elder care has been that as a country modernizes, whether it is Western or non-Western, it will inevitably move in the direction of increased dependence upon institutional care of the elderly and a corresponding decrease in family-centered care. Along with this transition will come changing attitudes about obligations of children vis-a`-vis their parents in relation to care and intergenerational tensions about how those obligations are carried out and perceived. There is an element of truth in this, as certain conflicts are predictable as a society industrializes or reaches a postindustrial state; for example middle-aged Japanese, like their American counterparts, often struggle to manage care of their parents while also coping with expenses related to the college education of their children (see Plath, 1975). The conditions in which individuals operate in relation to this issue are very similar in the two societies, but the toolkits of values that each draws upon to address the problems that arise have significant differences. At the center of the Japanese toolkit is the notion of filial piety, one of the main frameworks through which Japanese have contemplated elder care for some time.

It has been argued that the notion of filial piety has waned considerably as a value in contemporary Japanese society. Gerontologist Daisaku Maeda has gone so far as to claim that the term for filial piety, oya ko ko, is virtually dead in the language as Japanese have come increasingly to value individualism, although he does recognize that a decrease in the use of the term should not necessarily be equated with a dramatic decline in the belief among children that they should care for their parents in old age (Maeda, 2004, p. S75). If my own research is accurate, it may well be that reports of the death of filial piety in Japan are premature, even while multigenerational households have changed and experienced considerable economic and other problems for several generations (Schattschneider, 2003, p. 26). Indeed, it remains the case that, even while the rate has declined from where it was 20 years ago, roughly 50% of Japanese over the age of 65 live with their children, a rate that reaches as high as 70% in some rural areas (Maeda, 2004, p. S75). This is starkly different from other industrial societies such as the United States, where, for example, as of the 1990 census, only 15.9% of those over the age of 60 lived with an adult child (Schmertmann, Boyd, Serow, & White, 2000, p. 25).

In fact, the extent to which there has been a decline in elder parent/adult child coresidence in Japan is difficult to determine, because Japanese data may underrepresent the extent of coresidence (see Brown, 2003).

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