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."