DIVORCE IN JAPAN: Family, Gender and the State 1600-2000, by Harold Feuss. Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2004, 226 pp., $45 (cloth).

In recent years there has been a cascade of media reports about the dysfunctional Japanese family. The alarming incidence of domestic violence, child abuse, suicide, delinquency and divorce challenges some widespread assumptions about stable families in Japan.

Harold Fuess writes about the “forgotten history” of Japanese divorce, reminding us that the recent surge is quite “traditional.” His concise writing, based on rigorous research and thoughtful analysis, takes us through evolving perceptions, practices and laws over the past 400 years — a context that tells us much about Japan’s family and social history to contrast with prevailing media stereotypes.

Elevated divorce rates are nothing new to Japan; indeed, 19th-century rates have been exceeded only by those in the post-1970s United States. As recently as the late 19th century, there was little stigma attached to divorce and multiple marriages were common. A civil code and new laws on family registration introduced in 1898, however, led to a sharp decline in divorce rates. Fuess notes that “Industrialization, urbanization, and modernization, broad trends often blamed for an increase in divorce, had the opposite effect in Japan during the first four decades of the twentieth century.”

This is a rich trove on the nexus of family, gender and the state. We learn about the origins of “no-fault” divorce, the role of Buddhist temples in mediating settlements and the manner in which Meiji modernization came to influence families. There are chapters on the trial marriage system, divorce customs in the 1870s and the controversies swirling around attempts at codification of divorce in the Meiji Era. High divorce rates until the end of the 19th century are best understood in “the context of a nuptial and family system that facilitated and condoned divorce because it treated marriage as conditional.”

Spouse testing was normal and remarriage was possible for both men and women. However, the ambiguities of trial marriages bumped up against government efforts to modernize marriage regulations: “By establishing and emphasizing a legal definition of marriage, the government began to marginalize other forms of relationships between men and women.”

The act of codifying family regulations generated frictions between customs, newly “invented traditions” and Western legal practice. Fuess writes, “Establishing a system of divorce in a civil code became entangled in larger issues of the proper role of a modern state vis-a-vis the family, conflicting interpretations of modernity and Japanese traditions, desire for international recognition and a search for national identity, antagonistic views of the desirability of individualism and community, and incongruous expectations regarding patriarchy and gender relations.”

The anomalous period in Japanese divorce history spanned the period 1898-1940 when divorce rates declined. Why? According to Fuess, there was a strengthening of the institution of marriage because the Japanese “valued economic and social stability in marriage above romance and affection.” In addition, a new sexual morality developed that criticized divorce as a national disgrace and a poor reflection on women’s rights.

Yesterday’s battles are still being fought today. The government suppressed textbooks in 1997 that accurately reported rising divorce rates because they contradicted “traditional Japanese values. By defining traditional Japanese values as anti-divorce, the ministry not only rewrote history and reinvented tradition; it also elevated the problem of divorce rates to an issue comparable to the controversies surrounding Japanese atrocities in WWII.”

After World War II, Japan gained an undeserved reputation for low divorce rates. The current “explosion,” more than tripling since 1963, shows Japan “reverting to the high levels noted at the dawn of the twentieth century.” Fuess takes issue with those who blame rising divorce rates on radical revisions of family law during the America Occupation, arguing that divorce procedures “have shown a conspicuous continuity over the past few centuries in the marginal role played by courts in divorce.”

In postwar Japan, 90 percent of divorces have simply been registered without recourse to family courts. This system of “mutual consent divorce” is popular precisely because it lets a couple settle their affairs outside court scrutiny. Whether this may reinforce patriarchal bias in divorce settlements is another matter.

As for the consequences of divorce, there have been significant changes, including “a rise in the unprecedented practice of mothers chiefly taking custody of their children.” Fuess states that the spread of “second-wave feminism in Japan during the 1970s . . . was accompanied by the greatest inequality in post-divorce parenting arrangements.”

Fuess also asserts that Japan has been a pioneer in divorce law, noting that in “permitting no-fault divorce, the Western divorce codes adopted the nonmoralistic approach to divorce found in Japanese legislation since the nineteenth century.” Free of the jargon that often mars and muddles contemporary scholarship, this book is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the contemporary family in Japan and its social history.

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