The family cracks under strains it was not meant to bear. It’s an institution as old as civilization. Are its days numbered?

Reports last month in Shukan Gendai and Shukan Post magazines stir dark thoughts. Whatever you think your children will do for you as you age, Shukan Gendai warns, “you’re expecting too much.” Shukan Post’s headline spells it out: “People at life’s end abandoned by their children.”

A man, now 78, doted on his grandson. He showered gifts on him. He financed his education, sending him to the best schools. The boy’s gratitude, and his parents’, was like a drug. The more he got, as Shukan Gendai tells it, the more he needed.

Two years ago the old man’s wife had a stroke. She recovered, but not fully. She needs care. Care is expensive. Hers runs to ¥80,000 a month. How long will the savings hold out? Not indefinitely. Swallowing his pride, the man appealed to his son: “I need help. Financially.”

He might have expected sympathy, if not succor. He got neither. Reminded, as tactfully as possible, of the financial help he’d received over the years, the son replied coldly, “I never asked you for it.”

Here is Shukan Post’s variation on the theme: When his mother died some years ago, a man now in his 50s took his father in to live with him. A gesture well meant soon turned sour. Generation gap, character clash — incompatibility has many names. The old man’s habits and tastes clashed with the family’s, the kids got on his nerves, tensions rose. Still, the years passed, crises were overcome, cracks papered over. The kids grew up and left, the family anticipated a little financial ease — when suddenly the old man collapsed. Stroke. Partial recovery. Care.

The family consulted a care manager. Insurance would cover home help for bathing and feeding and other personal attentions — but not for cooking and cleaning and so on. Husband and wife talked it over. It ended with the wife quitting her part-time job to see to her father-in-law’s needs. She’s not happy. How could she be?

Japan’s myth of blissful domesticity is relatively new, imported along with other “Western” modernizations during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). An article promoting it in an 1894 manual on home education is quoted by scholar Jordan Sand in an essay titled “At Home in the Meiji Period.” “Institute,” it suggests, “a conversation or (tea) gathering at home every evening for an hour or two after supper; bring the family together and console one another with mutual love and kindness after the day’s labors… Gaze at the baby’s endearing face and smile together, or listen to the innocent voices of the children recounting the subjects they studied or the moral lessons they learned at school.”

Was it ever really like that? Here and there no doubt; certainly not en masse. Current disillusion with the family as an institution can be traced back at least to 1998, when Spa magazine, in November of that year, introduced as typical a 34-year-old man who demands, “Why get married? There are convenience stores and dry cleaners, and I’ve discovered I don’t have an overwhelming need for sex.” Neither do a lot of people, and two decades later 1 in 4 Japanese men and 1 in 7 Japanese women are unmarried at 50.

Are they the worse for it? In July 2001, Sunday Mainichi magazine introduced a woman named Sachiko, recalling at age 51 something she’d gone through 25 years before. This takes us back to the mid-1970s, when the typical household squirmed under the thumb of the husband’s mother. Sachiko’s husband’s family ran a small business hotel in Tokyo. Sachiko was conscripted as the maid of all work — unpaid. Her pregnancy provoked a business crisis. Who would replace her? Her mother-in-law ordered an abortion. Sachiko appealed to her husband. He pleaded helplessness. She yielded. Such was marriage — the wife yielded, and very likely wished herself single.

Sachiko’s daughters — for she went on to have other children — may well be single today, or if married, unyielding. Either way, enjoying freedom their mother never knew, they’ll have their share of cares all the same. Spared the aging autocrat, they’ll deal almost inevitably with the aging dependent. It’s the price we pay for longevity. Not forever, perhaps. A vast evolution is in store for us, the science magazine Newton predicts.

“Will aging be banished from the world?” its April issue asks. Regenerative medicine, reversing and blocking aging at the cell level, strides forward — all the way to immortality, it may be. Debility, senescence, all-consuming nursing care, may soon be distant memories of a benighted past. The first human immortal has already been born, says British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, a vanguard researcher in the field.

Life as it might be is marvelous; life as it is, less so, though always exciting. Spa magazine in March introduced the lately popular “concept share house” — households composed of people not in love or familial relationships but united by common interests, anything from raising cats to cycling, music to bodybuilding. You never run out of things to talk about. Might this, in embryo, be the family unit of the future?

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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