Marriage may be an institution, but it’s permutations have run the gamut from polygamy, a practice that dates to ancient times but is still allowed in certain areas, to the recent legalization in some places of same-sex partnerships, with everything in between.

Postwar Japan has seen a shift from family-oriented marriages in which parents play matchmaker to individuals pursuing true romance. With democracy, women attained equal rights in marriage in terms of assets and custody.

These days, the concept of marriage is a source of great worry in Japan, as couples are tying the knot later in life. This, the graying population and falling birthrate are causing headaches for society.

Following are questions and answers regarding the marriage situation in Japan:

How did most people marry before the war?

Most marriages were arranged by parents, relatives and heads of households, because a marriage was more about joining one family to another.

Under the Civil Law, which took effect in 1898 during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the “ie” family system debuted, legally centralizing various rights to the head of the household, who in principle was the first-born son.

This system, abolished in 1947, was often criticized as feudal and discriminatory against women.

According to “Meiji no Kekkon Meijino Rikon” (“The Meiji Marriage the Meiji Divorce”) published in 2005 by Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan Publishing Co., the head of the household held all property and rights over the wife, including parental authority.

Adultery was a criminal offense if committed by the wife. Not so for husbands, many of whom tended to stray.

Is it true fewer people are getting married these days?

Apparently so, and statistics indicate people are getting married at a later stage in life.

Data for 2005, the most recent compiled by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, shows that 47.1 percent of men from 30 to 34 were single, up from 32.6 percent in 1990, and 32.0 percent of women were single in the same age bracket, up from 13.9 percent in 1990.

According to Masahiro Yamada, a professor of family sociology at Chuo University, it is not about an increase in the number of people who want to stay single, but an increase in those who want to get married but can’t.

He notes three social obstacles to marriage: decreases in men’s salaries, more women who desire to be a housewife only, and the rise of “parasite singles” — men and women who live comfortably with minimal expense under their parents’ roofs.

“Women are staying at home with their parents, waiting for a man with a high income to come along. But there are fewer of these men, and hence the women are growing old as spinsters,” Yamada said.

Are the ways couples meet changing?

Yes. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, about 70 percent of all marriages before the war were arranged. Nearly 60 years later, the percentage has plunged to 6.4 percent.

The group’s data show that most couples in recent years tied the knot based on affectionate ties nurtured through dating.

But there are many single men and women who, partly due to long working hours, complain they have little opportunity to meet a significant other.

This trend has turned matchmaking into a growth industry. The Ministry of Economic, Trade and Industry estimated in 2006 that the sector saw sales of between ¥50 billion to ¥60 billion.

Some parents desperate to find the right partner for their offspring even exchange profiles of their children.

Are same-sex marriages allowed in Japan?

No. Article 24 of the Constitution stipulates that marriage should be based on the mutual consent of “both sexes.”

According to “Pa-tona-shippu — Seikatsu to Seido” (“Partnership — Life and the System”) published in 2007 by Ryokufu Shuppan Inc., a guideline used by the Justice Ministry to examine immigration cases, the term “spouse” does not include those of same-sex unions.

What is the rule for surnames after marriage?

If both partners in a marriage are Japanese, the last name of one must be adopted, but not necessarily the male’s, as is the case in most Western countries. But if one spouse is a foreigner, the name of the Japanese spouse remains the same unless a change is filed within six months of the marriage.

Ardent advocates of the right to keep separate surnames, particularly a maiden name, have opted for common-law marriage.

The Democratic Party of Japan has submitted a revision of the Civil Law to the Diet in the past to enable couples to carry separate family names. Most recently, Justice Minister Keiko Chiba expressed her intention to submit a bill in the next ordinary Diet session to allow different surnames.

But conservative lawmakers, including some in the DPJ, oppose the change because, they argue, it would change the structure of the traditional family.

What is the divorce rate?

The divorce rate has remained relatively stable for the past decade, exceeding 250,000 cases annually. In 1970, the marriage rate was 10 percent and the divorce rate 0.93 percent. The figures indicated the percentage of marriages and divorces per 1,000 people.

In 2008, however, the marriage rate was 5.8 percent, while the divorce rate was 1.99 percent.

According to Chuo University’s Yamada, who conducted a survey on divorces, many of them were the result of a drop in the husband’s income.

Yamada agreed that it has become more socially acceptable to file for divorce, but he added it is now a matter of course that wives pursue divorce if their husbands fail to bring home the bacon.

“For the men, when the money runs out, so does the relationship,” Yamada said. “And most women take the children back to their parents’ home — they become parasites again.”

What about international marriages and what are some of the problems connected with the divorce and parental rights when those marriages fail?

International marriages are on the increase. According to the health ministry, about 5.1 percent of all marriages, or 36,969 out of the 726,106 couples who wed in 2008, were international marriages, with one of the spouses being a foreigner, up from 25,626 mixed marriages in 1990.

In one example of how international divorces can get ugly, last month an American was arrested in Fukuoka for allegedly trying to kidnap his own children back from his divorced Japanese wife, who had actually defied a U.S. court custody decision and brought the children to Japan.

According to media reports, the man was granted full custody of the children by a Tennessee court, but the ex-wife took the children back to Japan.

Japan is not a signatory member of the 1980 Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which is designed to deter international parental child abductions.

The husband was released from jail and went home empty-handed.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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