The Meanings of Grandchildren to Elderly Japanese Today

In our research project, my colleagues and i met people with a variety of relationships with their grandchildren. There were active grandparents who helped care for younger grandchildren and lonely old people who craved meaningful ties with their son's or daughter's young adult children. Others appeared to be fulfilled old people who did have such bonds, elderly great-grandparents glowing with pride in the continuing families they had helped to create, captured in the extended family photographs that appeared in frames on bookshelves or hanging on the wall or (in one case) on a personalized calendar. The grandparents' economic situations varied as well. One family owned a successful business in central tokyo; another caregiving couple were university-educated artists. In contrast, several elderly couples lived in city-subsidized housing and expressed concerns about personal finances. Most had themselves or through co-residence with their children achieved a lifestyle that would be considered Middle class in Japan. At least in our small sample, their relative affluence did not predict the nature of the relationship these elderly people had with their grandchildren. Nor did the geographical and social divide between tokyo and the more rural akita samples result in a patterned difference in the meanings of these relationships.

Out of the thirty families we interviewed, nearly all of the older people had grandchildren and/or step-grandchildren. Nine households included a co-residing grandchild (five out of fifteen in tokyo and four out of fifteen in akita) at the time of the first interview. Of the nine, one household had two grandchildren, and two (one each in tokyo and akita) had a married grandchild who had a child, meaning that the elderly person we interviewed lived in a four-generation household with a co-residing great-grandchild. However, these cases do not all indicate family continuity over the generations as in the early twentieth-century stem family model. In our interviews, we did hear of that intent, particularly in the akita farm families and in the case of the tokyo family with a great-grandchild (the family owned a successful business as well as additional land in the vicinity). In other families, however, the grandchildren were young adults who had not yet married and were still living with their parents. In fact, over the course of the project, we heard of their departures from the household for overseas volunteer service, for marriage, and for work (cf. White 2002, 154–163).

In Japanese, a single term, mago, is the term for grandchild, regardless of whether the person is male or female or whether the relationship is through a son or daughter, an elder or a younger child.5 some of the older people did appear to hold the assumption of the older stem family system that the “inside grandchildren,” or the children of the heir to the household, had a different relationship to the grandparents than the “outside grandchildren,” who were part of other households. Yet i did not hear these terms used, and although the grandparents sometimes distinguished whose child they were talking about (for example, “my older son's children” or “my second daughter's son”) as a way of identifying them, the main way that distinction appeared to impact their relationship with the grandchildren was in the question of co-residence. Yet some cases of co-residence were based on relationships other than eldest son inheritance, such as the families in which the old person was living with a younger daughter or a third son. Bonds with daughters' children were expected even in the stem family system. For example, a new mother was expected to return to live in her parents' household for weeks or months at the time of the birth. This practice continues, if not in the daughter coming home, then In her mother going to her home to assist her with the new baby and older children, providing some opportunity for early bonding with grandchildren through daughters, even if they were considered to have married into another household.

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