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


Since the middle of the twentieth century, Japan has undergone dramatic demographic, economic, and cultural changes that have altered the way that people live and the way that they perceive their world and their selves. One of these changes is the creation of a new demographic category, the large numbers Of old-old people who have witnessed these changes firsthand. This chapter has asked about the meaning of grandchildren for twenty-first-century elders, whose collective lives are helping to create the new culture of mass longevity (Plath 1980).

With limited data, i have tried to understand their experiences and perceptions of their current lives. Most of the literature on the families of old people has focused on their relations with their children and daughters-in-law, particularly from the younger generation's perspective of the burdens of financial and bodily support. Few have asked about the family from the perspective of the old people themselves. How do relationships with not only children but also with grandchildren contribute to their lives and to what it means to them to be old? Will the increasing social class cleavages of the twenty-first century result in different types of relationships among grandparents and grandchildren in the future?

I suggest that regardless of physical proximity, grandchildren play important roles. Sometimes they can be sources of secondary assistance and support. They cannot be counted upon, but they can potentially help. Grandchildren also contribute to an understanding of who old people are in this brave new world, reminding them of historical and generational changes that have accompanied their own aging. When past relationships, based on helping with child care, shared activities, or other ways of spending active time together, led to close feelings between the generations, grandchildren could also provide a bridge between their grandparents' past and the changing twenty-firstcentury world. Emotional bonds of love, mutual concern, and pride helped some grandparents continue to have a sense of worth in a society that too often treats them as having outlived their usefulness. We can only imagine what having survived nine days together in the rubble after the earthquake might mean to the grandparent-grandchild relationship of Mrs. Abe and her grandson Jin.


I am grateful to the families who participated in the longitudinal study of family caregiving under the Japanese public long-term care insurance system instituted in 2000. My work on this project would not have been possible without the leadership of project directors suda yūko and takahashi ryūtarō and qualitative team members asakawa noriko, asano yūko, ruth Campbell, izumo yūji, Kodama Hiroko, Muraoka Kōko, nishida Masumi, nishimura Chie, and yamada yoshiko. Financial support for data collection came from the Japanese Ministry Of education and science and the Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare. Additional funding for data analysis came from the Univers Foundation and John Carroll University. Ruth Campbell and satsuki Kawano provided helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this chapter.

1. Experts on aging often distinguish between the “young old” and the “old old,” but use different ages for the cutoff age between the two groups, ranging from seventy-five to eighty to eighty-five. By using the term “very old” here, i am referring to the advanced age of the people i discuss in this chapter, who were in their late seventies to mid-nineties, while i avoid the technical debate on the definition of “old old.”

2. An interdisciplinary research team conducted a series of interviews with thirty elderly people in need of assistance in daily living, along with their family caregivers, as part of a larger study of the public long-term care insurance program that began in 2000. The person in need of care qualified for the program but may or may not have been using its services. In all but one of the families, the main family caregiver was residing in the same household as the elderly person. Our interview sample was chosen to reflect a variety of caregiver–care recipient relationships, including spouses, daughters-in-law, sons, and daughters.

3. The variations in responses in this study were additionally influenced by the gender of the grandchild, the age of the grandchild, whether the generations lived together, the frequency of grandchild care by the grandparent, and the amount of time spent together.

4. Anthropological work on changing Japanese families in the early twenty-first century includes Coulmas (2007), Kumagai (2008), Ochiai (1997), rebick and takenaka (2006), and ronald and alexy (2011). Changing ideas about old age and the lives of old people are specifically addressed in izuhara (2006) and Platz (2011).

5. This is one indication that in anthropological terms Japanese kinship is basically bilateral, although patrilineal overlays due to influences from China have also been important. The form of Japanese families has changed greatly over time. The patrilineal stem family model discussed above in this chapter is specific to the last part of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, although it had precursors in certain places and social classes earlier.

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