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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Family Change in the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century

Legally, the stem family system ended following world war ii, when Japanese family law was rewritten under the allied occupation, whose goal was to democratize the country. The new laws broke up the stem family system by legalizing free choice of spouse and career, making inheritance equal among siblings, and eliminating the assumption that families continue beyond the lifetimes of the individuals who make them up. In addition to these legal changes, the industrialization of Japan over the course of the twentieth century undermined the stem family system in both urban and rural areas, as most people became more dependent for their future livelihood on the educational system rather than on inheriting the family farm or business. More people moved away from their parents' homes for jobs or for higher education. Corporate workers lived in cramped quarters and were sometimes transferred away from their home areas; rural youth migrated to cities for jobs.

In the last half of the twentieth century, three-generational households continued at a higher rate than in other industrialized countries, but that rate declined dramatically. Even when such a living arrangement was practical for economic or health reasons, providing what takagi, silverstein, and Crimmins (2007) call “plasticity” to accommodate social changes, it was no longer the same as the stem family in the earlier period. For more affluent landowning families, some version of co-residence might be a luxury. For working-class families it might be a necessity to share a residence. Co-residence sometimes continued if a grandparent could assist with child care (though many Grandmothers “commuted” to this “job” as well) as more women continued working outside the home after marriage. Increasingly, three-generational co-residence that did occur was likely to be a result of the older person moving in with an adult child due to illness or the death of a spouse rather than the middle generation remaining in the family home and raising its children there. Thus the practice of three generations sharing a household continued to exist for some as a practical solution or as an abstract ideal, but for many Japanese families, it was increasingly less practical, less desirable to both the older and younger generations, and thus less compelling. It was no longer the assumed family form; rather it needed to be discussed and negotiated.

Japanese sociologists characterized this change as the nuclearization of the family (kakukazokuka). For all of the reasons noted above, children growing up in the latter half of the twentieth century were less likely to have experienced living in the same home as grandparents than the previous generation, and ideas about what “family” means have changed accordingly. Rather than relying on grandchildren to carry on the family farm or business, most older adults relied on their own savings and pensions for their livelihood in their old age. People came to think of the family not as a work unit, as in the early twentieth century, but as a place for interpersonal ties and the socialization of children. The distinction between maternal and paternal grandparents thus became less significant as people valued emotional ties to daughters and their children as well as to sons and theirs. The increasing proportion of parent-child only (nuclear family) households regularly tracked in government statistics was seen as a measure of Japan's modernity.

Anthropologist takie Lebra (1984, 37), writing 40–50 years after wiswell and Benedict, discusses the role of grandparents in the new type of threegenerational households, which might look like a pre–world war ii stem family in composition but had changed substantially. She describes the grandparental role as both “supplementary to and inhibitory of the parental role.” She adds that women sometimes appreciated and sometimes resented the motherin-law's role as supplementary parent and generally preferred that their own mother play that role (1984, 178–179). Lebra also goes beyond discussing the grandmother's role to examining what it means for an older woman's life. She claims that a woman's role at the beginning of grandparenthood is to make a mother out of her daughter-in-law. “the physical care given to the daughterin-law seems to be a crucial investment for one's old age; the daughter-in-law thus cared for will not mind nursing the aged mother-in-law's incapacitated body.” She identifies a variety of meanings that grandchildren have for the Grandmothers she interviewed: as objects of an emotional attachment, as viaducts for communicating across generations or with spouses, as amusing visitors whom they are happy to have come and happy to have leave, as babysitting charges in whom they invest for their own future care, and as important links in household continuity (1984, 263–265). Even when the generations were living separately, a significant amount of assistance with child care was frequently provided by grandmothers, especially as more married women worked outside the home (Campbell and Brody 1985).

In recent years, the increased mobility of the population, urbanization, and nuclearization of families mean that grandparents and grandchildren have fewer opportunities for interaction (thang 2008, 179). Analyzing social survey data, saito and yasuda (2009) report that the farther the children live from their grandparents' houses, the less frequently the children have contact with them. Factors that could compensate for the physical distance were not the availability of communication devices (see also Kumagai 2008, 119) but the parents' time and work status. Busy parents found less time to take their children to visit grandparents. Kawano (this volume) points to the contact between grandparents and grandchildren resulting from women's perceived need for child rearing help in a society that remains unfriendly to simultaneous child-rearing and full-time employment. Unable to get much relief from husbands, mothers of young children turn to their own mothers or, less often, to mothers-in-law for assistance. Survey research has found that younger preschoolers in Japan had more contact with their grandparents than other children because older children may be busy with school and extracurricular activities. Female adult children communicated more often with parents and grandparents than male children and more often communicated with grandmothers than grandfathers (tanaka 2001, cited in saito and yasuda 2009). Although the roles grandparents play are most likely based on the needs of the mother and the age of the grandchild, the significance of grandparenthood increased for men with age and remained high for women (ando 2005). But just what role the grandparents are to play is unclear. In a three-generation survey about grandparents' strengths and needs, the grandparents reported experiencing greater difficulty and more frustration and felt less informed to carry out their grandparental role than their children and grandchildren recognized (strom et al. 1996).3

These descriptions of the roles and interactions of grandparents describe grandparents who are in middle age or early old age, when they are active and grandchildren are babies or school age. But the last half of the twentieth Century also brought great demographic shifts that affect the meaning of family.4 the size of the family has grown smaller due not only to separate residences from grandparents but also to higher rates of divorce and to a declining birthrate. As the cost of raising children grew, more women entered the paid labor force, and people married later. The birthrate in the first decade of the twenty-first century was so low (1.2 children per woman) that the Japanese population was actually experiencing a negative growth rate (−0.2 percent). At the same time, life expectancy increased dramatically, from about forty-three years at the turn of the twentieth century to over eighty at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Thus older people may have fewer grandchildren, but many are living long enough to know their grandchildren as young adults and even to become great-grandparents. What happens to these relationships when grandparents can focus on fewer grandchildren for a longer time? What happens when grandparents become less able to perform grandparental roles culturally defined based on the demographics of an earlier era? As one healthy woman in her eighties expressed, “i took care of my grandchildren while my daughters worked, and now i am helping take care of my great-grandchildren, but i am tired. It's too much now.”

Yet there are few descriptive data about older grandchildren and very elderly grandparents, about what the relationship is like from the perspectives of people in these relationships. Historian norma Field, whose mother was brought up in Japan, offers a sole example. Field's Japanese grandmother is bedridden due to a stroke, barely able to speak, and receiving nutrition through a feeding tube inserted into her nose. Field describes the situation:

My mother puts on a tape of my daughter [the old woman's

Great-granddaughter] playing Mozart's andante in C for Flute. It's a young girl's playing, faltering and yet charming. My grandmother listens avidly, as if she were posing for a statue of woman Listening to Music. When it is over, i ask if she remembers her greatgranddaughter. She nods, yes. Does she like listening to this tape?

—i love it.

With her eyes, she searches the room for the girl who shares her name. (1997, 44–45)

The lack of attention to this phenomenon of very elderly grandparents may Be because it is so new. It also may be due to the stigma of being very old, so that the topic seems less significant than other social issues. As Brenda robb Jenike points out, “the current generation of the oldest-old in Japan is the first cohort to experience an extended period of not only grandparenthood . . . But also great-grandparenthood. Japanese culture and societal expectations for the elderly have not, however, caught up with the realities of this extended longevity” (2004, 217–218). Jenike claims that this new life stage is viewed negatively in part because it has no definition; there is no existing social role applicable to the new demographic situation. This negativity helps to explain the loneliness that many older people feel, their sense of being a burden on their families and on society. Today's grandparents acknowledge a twenty-first-century principle of non-interference with parenting but must find ways to juggle expectations of sometimes contradictory grandparental roles of past and present (thang et al. 2011). We can hypothesize that as they do so, the current cohort of very old people is helping to create the new cultural expectations of being very old, including what it means to be a great-grandparent and to know their grandchildren as adults. Because there are not yet definable roles or established expectations of twenty-first-century grandparenthood, i thought it would be especially interesting to see what the interview respondents had to say about the meaning of grandchildren and great-grandchildren for them, as a reflection of their past and also of Japan's future.

 
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