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Family and Grandchildren in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Today's oldest Japanese, those in their eighties and nineties, grew up in the early decades of the twentieth century. Like people everywhere, their understandings and expectations of family have been shaped by their experiences as children and through adulthood, as they and their society changed. To Understand what grandchildren mean to them, we begin with a look at the types of family worlds they have experienced in their lifetimes.

The family system of pre–world war ii Japan, formalized in national law, was based on an ideal of a stem family household, or ie. This type of family did not disappear as parents died and children left home but continued in an unbroken line of descent through time. In each generation, there was a single successor upon whom rested the responsibility for the continuity of the household and for the well-being of its members. Although in reality there were many exceptions and variations to this model, the common assumption was that when possible, the eldest son would be the heir, and his wife would succeed her mother-in-law in a gendered division of labor. Their children would be raised in the household with their paternal grandparents. Relationships with maternal grandparents were recognized and maintained, but regardless of how warm and loving the relationship might be, the grandchildren were seen as part of the stem family of their father.

What were grandparent-grandchild relations like in that era? We have reports from american ethnographers who studied Japan at the time. In describing relationships within a three-generational household, as explained by her Japanese american informants, well-known anthropologist ruth Benedict wrote that “Children have great freedom with their grandparents, though [the grandparents] are also objects of respect,” and she described the way that children might benefit from tension in the mother-in-law–daughter-in-law relationship as mother and grandmother tried to compete for the child's attachment (Benedict 1946, 264). This passage, however, is found in a section on childhood and does not discuss the significance of the relationship for the older generation or possible differences in raising children in non-succeeding, numerically predominant two-generational households.

Ella wiswell provides us with a more intimate view of grandparents and grandchildren, describing how in the 1930s, people in the village of suye Mura responded to the pictures she took of them:

Everyone is pleased to get prints of the photographs i take. They pass them from one member of the family to another, old folks put on their glasses, and the kids are shown the pictures, repeating with great glee, “it's grandpa! It's grandma!” . . . Many ask for extra prints to send to relatives or children or grandchildren. Old lady Goto wants to have her picture taken for her five-year-old grandson in Fukuoka—the one who was so attached to her, she says, when she Was living there. She always tells the same story, about how he would follow her even when she went to the toilet. (smith and wiswell 1982, 217)

Smith explains that grandmothers generally took charge of the older sibling when a new baby was born, and co-sleeping with grandmothers and grandfathers was common. Older children typically went to their grandmothers when they wanted money and generally received it (smith and wiswell 1982, 228; see also vogel 1963, 224–226). Thus although grandparents had responsibilities for the care and education of grandchildren of the household, their relationship with at least young grandchildren seems to have been close and fairly indulgent.

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