One aspect of Japanese culture that many feel is under assault is the nuclear family. Japanese divorce rates were fairly low until recently, but there is still a huge stigma surrounding divorcees that parallels American attitudes of the past. Japan in 1970 saw 95,000 divorces, in 1996 206,955 with the rate levelling off in 2000 to around 250,000 divorces a year. This works out to about 25%, about half the rate of present day America. Some feel that with the increasing divorce rate in Japan that the nuclear family concept is breaking down. This is especially true of the retiree divorces whose rate is skyrocketing as Japanese wives wait for their husbands to retire and then divorce them to avoid having to spend all day with a man they barely know and who used to spend 18hrs a day at work. But what are traditional Japanese attitudes towards marriage?
In his book, Divorce in Japan, Harold Feuss describes how high divorce rates are nothing new and for hundreds of years the divorce rate was on par with present rates in America. It wasn’t until Japan started to adopt western values and laws that things began to change. Until the civil code and new laws on family registration was introduced in 1898 marriages involved a “spouse testing period”. There was no stigma attached to multiple marriages and divorces. Once the code was enacted it became much harder to get a divorce. From 1898 to 1960s the divorce rate declined until Japan gained a reputation as a country with super low divorce rates. Fuess cites the family registration code, the rise of Industrialization, urbanization, and modernization of Japan as why the divorce rate lowered. As the Japanese moved to the cities they, “valued economic and social stability in marriage above romance and affection.”
Some critics point to the American meddling in Japanese family law after the war as the reason divorce rates have risen but Fuess disagrees, arguing that divorce procedures “have shown a conspicuous continuity over the past few centuries in the marginal role played by courts in divorce.” The Japanese have always had a “mutual consent divorce” system. 90% of divorces never see the inside of a court and are just registered at city hall.
So while pundits point at the American system as the problem, there is no problem as Japan is just returning to the traditional values of trial marriages it enjoyed for hundreds of years before Japan began to experiment with Western style values.
If you like this then, you should check out more from the “Myths of Japan” series:
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