Marriage in Contemporary Japan

By Koike, Evan | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Marriage in Contemporary Japan

Koike, Evan, Anthropological Quarterly

Yoko Tokuhiro, Marriage in Contemporary Japan. New York: Routledge, 2010. 164 pp.

In Marriage in Contemporary Japan, Yoko Tokuhiro argues that no single factor can account for the diversity in marriage patterns that one finds across human cultures. For example, the advent of industrialization in the West led to the weakening of family ties as young men and women moved from rural to urban areas. In contrast, Japanese industrialization saw a reassertion of parental control over such institutions as marriage, evidence that structural changes, when combined with culture, create phenomena particular to a given people (130).

As she outlines changing marriage patterns in Japan, addressing in turn both femininity and masculinity, Tokuhiro analyzes the complex interplay between conservative Japanese attitudes towards marriage and Japan's increasingly liberal views on sexuality. She argues persuasively that although reproduction remains strongly linked to the institution of marriage, as evidenced by the low number of extramarital births, sexuality is no longer the exclusive domain of marriage in Japan.

The introduction begins with the story of a friend who rejects conventional Japanese marriage norms, followed by brief sections considering several definitions of marriage and whether marriage inevitably leads to gender inequality. Tokuhiro further delineates some general trends in Japanese marriages, among them an increasing divorce rate and the tendency of men to marry women several years younger than themselves. The latter half of the introduction explains Tokuhiro's methodology: a literature review of materials both in the English and Japanese languages, three months of fieldwork at a "bridegroom school" in Tokyo, and a "snowball approach" to semi-structured interviews, with the interview questions listed in an appendix at the back of the book (13-14).

Chapter 1 utilizes an historical approach to explain how marriage has become normative within Japanese society. Until the end of World War II, the Confucian-based ie seido, or family system, stressed the subordination of individual needs to the needs of the group. Consequently, the continuity of one's family lineage, rather than personal preference, was the primary criterion in mate selection. The ie seido system served as a central institution structuring Japanese society until after the war, when it was formally abolished by the state. However, the patriarchal values embedded in the ie seido system continue to influence gender roles and social perceptions of marriage. For many Japanese, marriage remains a marker of adulthood: despite the growing numbers of young men and women who plan to remain single for the foreseeable future, most youth view marriage as "normal" and will eventually marry. Those who remain single face a heavy social stigma, especially Japanese women over the age of 30. Ideological pressures to marry and bear children do not abate with increasing economic independence, and for women these pressures are tied to a so-called "biological clock." After this culturally constituted clock expires, a woman's sexual and marital desirability decreases, and this decline offers further evidence that reproduction and marriage in Japan remain inextricably tied.

In Chapter 2, Tokuhiro looks at the effects of feminist discourse on the perceptions and practices surrounding marriage and reproduction in Japan, beginning with the Meiji era (1868-1912) and continuing to the present. As she situates feminism within the context of larger socioeconomic trends, Tokuhiro argues effectively that the history of feminism in Japan helps to explain why many contemporary women are less than willing to be seen as feminists. Negative images of feminists abound, among them sensationalized mass media representations and popular depictions of feminists as selfish and loath to contribute to Japanese society. As a whole, Japanese feminism is itself limited by its inalienability from motherhood, by state support for feminism that has ironically toned down some of feminism's more radical elements, and by the antagonism among various feminist groups, including academic feminists and housewife feminists. …

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