The family is humanity’s oldest and most universal institution. But its shape, size, aims and ideologies seem infinitely variable. Japan’s families down the ages have been polygamous and monogamous, multigeneration and single-generation, swarming with children or comparatively, if not entirely, devoid of them.
Through vast changes over vast stretches of time, the family has transmuted but endured. It was sacred. One didn’t argue whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, whether it worked or not; it simply was. The wonder is that now, when no thing simply is, when everything is open to question, the family as an institution survives. Will it indefinitely?
It faces two main challenges. The first is the need for, and a felt entitlement to, self-fulfillment. Are mating, procreating and assuming responsibility for offspring the best of what life has to offer? Maybe an unmarried life of unfettered freedom offers broader horizons? That many Japanese have come to think so is suggested by a swelling pool of lifetime singles.
The second challenge is economic. Gadgetry proliferates and technological empowerment soars, but gradual middle-class impoverishment is a fact of early 21st-century life. Are marriage and a family, even if desired, affordable? Earlier generations, though far poorer, never asked themselves that question. It would have been tantamount to asking if life was affordable.
But life has changed, and so have priorities. Single, a low-salaried worker can live reasonably comfortably. Married, the lifestyle young adults have grown up taking for granted is often no longer possible without — sometimes even with — two incomes. Japan lags far behind other developed societies in opening career paths to women in general, and to mothers in particular. Most women are still compelled to choose — career, or motherhood? Sixty percent of working women quit their jobs prior to giving birth, the weekly Josei Jishin reports. No wonder career-minded women are increasingly turning their backs on marriage.
Regarding self-fulfillment and its possibilities within marriage, Spa! magazine had an interesting piece last month on something relatively new — or is it merely a new name for something agelessly old? The usual Japanese word for marital infidelity is furin. An alternative expression gaining currency is kongai ren’ai — literally, “romantic love outside marriage.”
The article’s centerpiece is a survey of 100 people, men and women, aged 30-45. Have they experienced kongai ren’ai? Yes, say 24 percent of the men and 20 percent of women. That implies a healthy stability for marriage — 76 percent of men and 80 percent of women haven’t experienced it. But Question 2 in the survey, addressed to those who haven’t, is: Why not? Fear of exposure, say 31 percent. Because it’s morally wrong, say 21 percent. Coming a distant third (15 percent) is the only answer that would seem to justify all the hope and excitement that even a cynical and jaded age like ours invests in marriage: “Because I really like my spouse.”
The perception that emerges from this survey, as from so many others, is that marriage is long but satisfaction is fleeting. You fall in love and think it’s forever, yet the facts speak otherwise. Forty percent of Spa!’s kongai ren’ai men, and 38 percent of the women, say they sought romance outside marriage because of “sexlessness or sexual incompatibility.” A typical elaboration comes from a 36-year-old woman: “After our child was born our relationship turned entirely family-oriented, and we stopped having sex.”
So why bother? Why doesn’t civilization finally outgrow the lovely illusion of marriage and embark on some other form of adult life, one based on harsh but solid reality? Here’s one answer of sorts: “I want to enjoy ren’ai (romantic love) while maintaining my family as a foundation for my life,” say 42 percent of Spa!’s philandering men, and 34 percent of the women.
When the heartland flounders, the countryside shows the way — sometimes. Mention Fukui Prefecture and the inevitable association, post-March 11, 2011, is with nuclear reactors — there are more of them there than anywhere else in Japan. But Fukui claims another distinction. It is considered Japan’s happiest prefecture — partly because of the economic boost those now-sinister reactors have provided; partly also, as Josei Jishin magazine explains, because of its apparently seamless fusion of tradition and modernity — tradition as represented by three-generation households, once but no longer the norm throughout Japan; modernity by working wives and mothers. So many Fukui women work that those who don’t invite disapproving comment. When it comes to women combining careers and motherhood, Fukui ranks No. 1 nationwide.
And the birthrate has risen accordingly. Fukui has its own local way of measuring birthrate: Not children per woman, the standard elsewhere, but children per employee, female or male, and at least seven maternity-friendly companies in the prefecture boast rates of 2.0 or more — the highest is 2.48 — well above the stagnant national birth-per-woman average of 1.39.
What constitutes maternity-friendliness? An easy return to work after maternity leave is one feature; flexible work schedules allowing working parents to attend to their children is another. Some companies Josei Jishin introduces have childcare facilities on the premises.
And the three-generation household, of course, means there’s generally a baby-sitter at home, to say nothing of seasoned older people to whom younger family members can turn in times of crisis.
Has one of Japan’s most traditional prefectures solved some of the country’s most modern problems? Happiness and a rising birth rate are hard to argue with. So, however, is the fact that the nuclear family arose in the first place out of inter-generational tensions that had grown intolerable. Those tensions are encapsulated in a saying which Josei Jishin quotes in passing: “You don’t need two women in one house.” Have Fukui wives and mothers-in-law really learned the secret of coexistence? Should Japan as a whole be looking to Fukui for a solution to the endangered Japanese family?