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Foundations take a new shape

by Jeff Kingston

THE CHANGING JAPANESE FAMILY, edited by Marcus Rebick and Ayumi Takenaka. Routledge, 2009, 224 pp., £20 (paperback)

The notion of family in Japan conjures up images of stability that are increasingly out of step with emerging realities. Certainly, compared to most other advanced industrialized nations, Japan’s families are not in crisis. For Japanese, however — and this collection of essays — the point of reference is not how much more dire the situation is overseas, but how much better it seemed to have been in Japan until recent years, when the media began reporting extensively about various family-related problems that were previously mostly ignored. Stable families and jobs have been the pillars of the post-World War II system, but both are now less secure, carrying significant ramifications for social policy.

A superb essay by Roger Goodman examines the dramatic and rapid shift in public attitudes toward child abuse and domestic violence, and the role of the state in family matters. Child abuse and domestic violence in Japan, once hidden scourges, are emerging from the shadows. Until the 1990s these problems were met with either collective denial or the view that they were private matters best handled within the family. Advocacy groups with media support have put them on the national radar, and Japanese society now acknowledges them as intolerable and requiring state intervention.

Goodman examines how various actors contributed throughout the 1990s to raising awareness of child abuse. These culminated in national legislation in 2000 that introduced a legal definition of abuse so that it could not be defended under the guise of discipline. It also established mandatory reporting by educational, welfare and medical personnel, and police intervention in certain cases.

Similarly, as Goodman reports, domestic violence was “discovered” in the 1990s, leading to legislation in 2001 that has prompted a cascade of reports and escalating police intervention. With these initiatives, the relationship between the state and the family as a social unit has changed irrevocably.

Misa Izuhara’s essay probes the nexus of social policy, the changing family and a rapidly aging society. Japan’s social welfare system for the elderly is heavily dependent on relatives providing most of the care while the government plays a supplementary role. Izuhara explains, however, that the family’s capacity to play this primary role is diminishing dramatically. Female relatives have played a crucial role in caregiving, but with many more pursuing careers, there are constraints on how much they can contribute. In addition, there has been a substantial decline in co-residency of generations; as of 2002 only 10 percent of households are three-generational.

To address the “mismatch” between need and capacity, the government introduced Long-Term Care Insurance (LTCI) in 2000. This expansion of services for the elderly has helped, but is not a panacea. According to Izuhara, lack of information, confusing eligibility criteria and “stigma attached to the user of public welfare” remain formidable barriers. While this stigma seems to be disappearing, she is right in concluding that “the breakdown of customary [care] arrangements has begun in earnest.”

Similar issues are explored from a demographic angle by Naohiro Ogawa and colleagues. They show that while the number of frail elderly needing care is rapidly increasing, the pool of younger relatives able to provide care is rapidly shrinking. Also, the authors project a significant rise in the number of households without any caregivers, arguing that as a consequence the efficacy of the LTCI, which depends on family members to serve as primary caregivers, will become increasingly limited.

As co-editor Marcus Rebick notes, the prolonged economic turmoil of the Heisei Era (since 1989) has had negative consequences for the family. He writes that less secure employment, lower incomes and rising anxiety are discouraging many young people from getting married and starting families. The declining birthrate poses significant challenges — it is here attributed to factors including the difficulty of balancing work and child rearing, insufficient and inflexible child care options, postponement of marriage or nonmarriage and, for women, little prospect of help from husbands. The government must try to make a difference. This interdisciplinary volume does not offer any concrete policy proposals, but does provide readers with insight on the state of the Japanese family and how it is evolving.