Families in Japan: Beliefs and Realities

By Kumagai, Fumie | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Families in Japan: Beliefs and Realities


Kumagai, Fumie, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


INTRODUCTION

One of the central themes of human societies is the continuous process of social change. Although the rate of progress differs from one society to another, it is generally the case that societies change from traditional to modern. We are not certain, however, as to what is traditional and what is modern. There seems to be no consensus on this topic.

As Etzioni and Etzioni-Halevy put it (1973: 177), the transition from traditional to modern soeity involves the following eight characteristics: namely, (1) a demographic revolution, (2) changes in the family, (3) an opening up of the stratification system, (4) a rise of bureaucracy, (5) a fading impact of religion, (6) changes in education, (7) a growth of mass culture, and (8) an emergence of a market economy and industrialization.

As we have already pointed out, the family being one of the most fundamental institutions in any society, it is a reflection of social change. Thus, study of the institution of the family in contemporary Japan is vital to understanding the larger culture. That is, an analysis of changes and variations in Japanese families uncovers and highlights social change in Japan.

The process of Japanese modernization has been influenced by three major foreign cultures. They are, namely, Oriental culture, Korean and Chinese in particular, in the late 6th to 8th Centureies, European culture in the 19th to the early 20th Centuries, and American cultures since the end of World War II. It is commonly believed that Japanese modernization began with the Meiji Restoration (1868) when Japan enthusiastically absorbed Western civilization. At that time, the Japanese adopted new froms of economic, social and political organization, especially in regard to science and technology. Despite all this, Japan managed to preserve its own cultural values and traditions. Hoselitz (1966), echoing Boeke (1930, 1942, 1946, 1953) admitted that the transformation of Japan in the last hundred years is perhaps the best example of a dualistic soceity. That is, Japan integrates both modernity and tradition (Kumagai, forthcoming). Shishido (1983) argues that what is characteristic about Japan's effort to learn from industrially developed countries in the West is that Japan never followed them blindly; instead, it tried to incorporate into its own systems only that would be advantageous to it. This prudent and selective process of learning is often referred to in Japan as wakon yosai, meaning Japanese spirit and Western learning concurrently. As this phrase suggests, Japan kept its cultural traditions intact, while assimilating foreign knowledge and technology. In other words, Japan's policy of modernization was marked by a spirit of independence.

Racial and ethnic homogeneity of Japanese society contributed to what Japan is today. Christopher (1983: 44-49) is of the view that Japan's homogeneity enabled Japan to Westernize its society while still preserving a keen sense of national identity. Smith (1983: 9-10) contended that the geographical location of Japan has much to do with the peculiarities of its cultural history. That is, the orignial diversity of its sources were "incorporated" into its own cultural traits because of its geographic characteristic as an island nation.

RELIGIOUS AND IDEOLOGICAL ORIENTATIONS, AND CHANCES IN THE FAMILY SYSTEM

Multi-Religious Culture in Japan

Despite the extensive influence of Chinese civilization, Japan has maintained a distinctiveness of its own partly due to its complex religious and ideological orientation. The Japanese people in general are not religious in their daily practices. Religion, however, permeates Japanese culture. In other words religion becomes a part of multi-religious cultural orientation in Japanese society where multiple numbers of religions and ideologies coexist simultaneously in people's minds. This multiple-religious culture of Japan would be quite different from the Judeo-Christian focus on one God or one religions orientation. …

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