Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Speaking of Life:
Life Histories of the Institutionalised Elderly in Kotobuki [1]

Yongmei Wu

  1. The aging of the population is considered to be one of the most crucial demographic and social issues facing contemporary Japan. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, due to the decline of the fertility rate and the extension of life expectancy, Japan has a large 'grey' population and its population is aging faster than any other in the world. The proportion of older persons (aged sixty-five or over) was 7.06 per cent in 1970 and had increased to 12.05 per cent in 1990. In 2000, Japan became the 'greyest country' in the world when the proportion of elderly reached 17 per cent. Demographic trends also indicate that the number of old-old (those aged seventy-five years or older), and bedridden and senile elderly has been increasing significantly each year. As a consequence, both families and society have had to shoulder the increasing burden for caring for the very old.
  2. The Japanese family has long been regarded as the care institution—a society which bears the main responsibility for looking after the elderly.[2] For the elderly, living with one of their children, usually the eldest son, and receiving care from his family, is the ideal life in old age. Today, most Japanese still think that the elderly should be taken care of at home by their family. Institutionalisation is thought to be dissonant with the cultural norms of filial piety which requires co-residence within the family group.
  3. Institutions are commonly associated with the old legend of Obasuteyama,[3] a mountain where aging parents who no longer contribute to the family economy were taken and left to die from starvation and cold. Institutionalisation means a loss of prestige for the elderly and suggests abandonment by their family, and it confers a social stigma on both the elderly and their families. However, despite the ideal of co-residence and negative feelings towards institutions, facilities for the elderly have become inevitable resources for the care of the elderly due to dramatic postwar demographic, socioeconomic and cultural transitions as well as the declining role of the family in the care of aging parents. Compared with a total of 690 welfare institutions in 1963, the number of institutions has increased markedly to more than four thousand in 1994.[4] As of 1995, around 29,800 old persons were living in some kind of welfare institution, accounting for 1.66 per cent of those aged sixty-five and above.
  4. Some of the questions that I am interested in include whether institutionalisation is still considered a stigma to residents in welfare institutions? How do the aged think about ending their lives in an institution and how do they evaluate their whole lives? How do they negotiate their lives in the institution? Drawing on residents' memories and current experiences, this paper presents narratives from four informants who have shared with me their experience of living the last part of their lives in a facility for the elderly. The interviews selected for the study have been taken from a sample of twenty-four residents in an age range of sixty-five to ninety-three, who are living in three types of facilities in a comprehensive Japanese welfare institution, the Kotobuki Home for the Elderly.[5] The interviews were conducted in the Kotobuki in 1998 and 1999 when I worked as a volunteer in the institution as part of my ten months' Ph.D. fieldwork. In the thesis I looked at the experience of and attitudes towards institutionalisation on the part of the residents and staff as well as outside visitors. I have selected the narratives from four elderly residents because, to some extent, they represent the different life styles I found in Kotobuki. Their stories illustrate some of the important themes in institutional life with respect to 'quality of life'. The interviews also demonstrate how gender expectations and differences shape these old persons' past and current life experiences and how they developed distinctive ways of adapting to institutional life in terms of coping with such things as interpersonal relationships, role expectations, maintenance of autonomy and impending death.
  5. Before I present the life stories of the four residents, I will first introduce how I came to interview these older persons in the Kotobuki Home for the Elderly. Then I will briefly describe my research setting, the Kotobuki home, as well as the four persons who recount their stories in this paper. Lastly, I will summarise the important themes that relate to gender that emerge from the interviews. I will highlight the effect family and social expectations had on men and women of the pre-war generation, and how they negotiated these expectations in their past and current life. Emphasis will be placed on how these aged residents perceived their career, marriage and family, and how they coped with coming to live in the institution for the aged.
  6. From October 1998 to August 1999 when I was a research fellow in the Japan College of Social Work, I visited about eight welfare institutions for the elderly of various types in the Tokyo area and selected the Kotobuki home to conduct an in-depth study for six months. I functioned primarily as a participant-observer in a wide range of activities in which residents, staff and visitors engaged, and I chose anthropological methods to study the experiences of institutional life and work. During the research period, I worked as a trainee student for the first month and a half and then as a volunteer. I helped with the tasks of the staff members, took part in all accessible activities such as club and recreational activities, attended care conferences, had informal talks with both the residents and staff, and took extensive field notes every day. After having established informal ties with the people working and living in the home, I began to interview both the residents and staff members. I listened to the residents' life histories and, in the interviews, tried to incorporate questions about their quality of life. I tried as much as possible to balance the number of the informants so that all three kinds of facilities within Kotobuki, that is, Sazanka,[6] Akashia,[7] and Aoba[8] were represented. Except for some elderly who were unwilling to recall their past (usually recipients of Livelihood Protection or seikatsu hogo[9] who were formerly homeless) most of the residents were cooperative. Originally, twenty-four residents responded to my interview, with twenty from Sazanka and Akashia and four from Aoba. Some interviews were done in the resident's room when his/her roommate was out. Most, however, were carried out in public areas such as the dining hall or reading room. When we were talking, I was always served a cup of tea and some Japanese cake. Talk proceeded in a relaxed way with much joking and laughter.
  7. The Kotobuki home is located in the southwestern part of Higashimurayama City—a residential city lying about twenty to thirty kilometers outside the Tokyo Metropolis. The home is run by a private non-profit social welfare corporation [shakai fukushi fôjin][10] with operating fees totally subsidised by both the Tokyo metropolitan and local governments. It is a five-floor building composed of three kinds of residential homes for the elderly: a special nursing home for the elderly [tokubetsu yôgo rôjin hômu—Aoba], a home for the elderly [ yôgo rôjin hômu—Sazanka] and home for the elderly with moderate fee [keihi rôjin hômu—Akashia]. According to the regulations defined by the Law for the welfare of the Elderly, Aoba is a kind of facility that provides nursing and personal care for those aged sixty-five and over who need constant care due to serious physical or mental impediments and who cannot be cared for at home. There is no income requirement for entrance admission and the function of the home is similar to nursing homes in western countries. Sazanka is a kind of facility that provides daily life assistance for those over sixty-five who cannot remain independent for physical, mental, environmental and financial reasons. The resident is usually entitled to the national public assistance programs or falls into the low-income category that is free from taxation. Akashia is an income-based boarding facility provided for the functionally independent aged sixty and over who lack adequate housing for financial and environmental reasons. As a type A keihi home, it provides meals for residents. Applicants need to apply directly to the administrator of the home and sign a contract if accepted. And a guarantor is needed when signing the contract. All three types of institutions receive public subsidies for their establishment and operation.
  8. Physically the three facilities are within a single building, but they are not all under the same administration because of the different types of care that they provide. Each facility has its own entrance. Basically, the residents in Akashia live in the southernmost rooms of the building with one private room per person. The west wing of the building houses residents of Sazanka, where two persons share a room. And the three-story east wing of the building is the Aoba Special Nursing Home for the Elderly. Here four residents live in a room. Following are some pictures showing the environment of Kotobuki.
    Figure 1. At the gate of Aoba, a group of elderly is preparing for an outing to the park.
    Figure 2. A corner of the lobby on the first
    floor of Sazanka.
    Figure 3. A Bon festival held in the yard of Kotobuki.

  9. Currently one hundred and fifty elderly persons live in Sazanka, fifty live in Akashia and one hundred live in Aoba. Among the three facilities, the elderly in Aoba tend to be the longest lived, with an average age of 80.1 years for males and 85.6 years for females. In Sazanka the average age of males is 76.4 and females, 79.5 years, and in Akashia the average age of males is 75.8 and females, 78.0 years. In all of the three facilities, the female elderly outnumbered their male counterparts and tended to be older than the males. Among the total three hundred residents in Kotobuki, the number of male residents is 119, while there are 181 females. In Aoba, almost everyone had some form of disability with regard to eating, walking, dressing, visiting the toilet and bathing. Most have chronic geriatric illnesses, and half were diagnosed with some form of dementia. In Sazanka and Akashia, though basically the residents entered the homes when they were sufficiently independent to carry out daily activities, with aging, they were gradually getting weaker. About 240 residents pay fees relative to their pension income, while the rest are on social welfare. Ninety-four employees support the three hundred residents in Kotobuki.
  10. The Kotobuki home is fairly attractive, very neat and clean. The daily routine of both the residents and the staff in the homes progresses according to a fixed timetable. All able residents must rise at 6:00 am. and be in bed by 9:00 pm. The major events in the homes are mealtimes which are scheduled at 7:30 am, 12:00 noon and 5:30 pm. Except for some modified westernised dishes, most of the cuisine is provided in traditional Japanese style. Figures 4, 5, 6 and 7 illustrate typical meals served in the home.

    Figure 4. Rice seasoned with soy sauce and boiled with meat or seafood and other savoury vegetables [takikomi yo han].
    Figure 5. Sushi for lunch.
    Figure 6. Unrolled sushi [chirashi-zushi] at the Girls' Festival.
    Figure 7. Vermicelli [isômen] in summer.
    A variety of activity programs takes place during the day. Members who belong to various cultural recreational clubs can enjoy hobbies such as flower arrangement, calligraphy, folk singing and folk dance, haiku, and handicrafts. There are also competitions of gateball, table tennis and Japanese chess (Figures, 8, 9, 10 and 11).

    Figure 8. Two residents practising calligraphy in the dining hall.
    Figure 9. A table tennis competition in the recreation room.
    Figure 10. Some members of Sazanka playing chess in the reading room.
    Figure 11. Gateball team members playing on the playground.

    However, the days of the residents are mostly spent sitting—sometimes sitting reading, thinking, watching TV, but more often sitting doing nothing. Occasionally, some residents are involved in the running of the home by serving tea, setting the tables, and putting away leftovers and dishes. The more able residents manage their own money, participate in recreation activities, go shopping or visiting family and friends. The more frail residents rely on others to initiate activities. The bedridden and demented elderly are entirely dependent on staff members for diaper changing, feeding and bathing.
  11. The informants I interviewed in Kotobuki were all over seventy-five years of age. From a historical perspective, they belong to a unique generation that lived through three or four historical eras, influenced by two totally different value systems and they experienced the transformation of the sex/gender roles defined by the state. They were either born in the late Meiji period (1868-1912) or Taisho era (1912-1926). They were brought up by parents or grandparents with prewar values, namely, the maintenance of the ie,[11] filial piety to parents, children's submissiveness to the household head, the superior status of men, and the inferior status of women. When they reached school age, although both boys and girls of all classes were entitled to an education; the goals and subject matter taught the two sexes were different. Men were expected to be successful in life (risshi shusse) and to fulfill their duties to the State. Young women were taught to be a 'good wives and wise mothers' [ryôsai kenbo][12] in the private world of the home for the sake of the State, and they were instilled with such feminine virtues as submissiveness to parents, husband and the in-laws,[13] modesty, chastity, frugality and hard work.[14] In their adult years, when required, the men were expected to fight on the battlefield to fulfil their duty to the nation and they were expected to work outside the home in order to provide for the basic unit of society, the family. On the other hand, the adult woman became an ideal 'good wife' who carefully managed the affairs of the household and devoted herself to the well being of its adult members. She was also a 'wise mother' who dedicated herself to rearing her children to be useful to the country. In a woman's life, the homemaker role came first, and activities not relating to home and children were by definition secondary. Still, not all women of this generation were expected to confine themselves to the kitchen and the nursery. For low-class women, participation in economic activities in small farming, fishing, retailing and manufacturing enterprises was essential to the household income. Some exceptionally well-educated women wishing to engage in vocations realised their dreams of becoming professionals. This generation lived the latter part of their lives in the postwar Showa period (1926-1989) when, under the U.S.-dominated occupation, Japan was reconstructed as a 'Nation of Culture' with the paired ideals of 'Peace and Democracy'.[15] At this time, Japan emerged as an economic, financial and technological superpower. This generation therefore witnessed enormous changes in the family system, particularly in its values, structure and functions, that were brought about by the new constitution and Civil Code. All of the people I interviewed have had to come to terms with the fact that rather than being cared for by their children in their own homes they must spend the last years of their lives in an aged-care facility.
  12. While a number of studies have focused on the transitions in image, status, role and life styles of Japanese women who belong to postwar generations,[16] studies on the life history of individuals of the prewar generation in terms of gender remain rare. I therefore chose to focus on issues of gender when selecting the four life stories that I present. I consider how the life stories of my four informants, Mrs. Toshiko Matsumoto, Mr. Kazuo Gotô, Mr. Chinseki Aoki and Mrs. Tsumako Yamaguchi, reflect sex-role expectations, how they think about their marriages, family life and careers, and how they cope with institutional life.
  13. Toshiko Matsumoto, a seventy-six year-old widow whose husband died when she was forty-six, has been a resident of Sazanka for about twenty-four years. It can be said that her life experience reflects the traditional model of womanhood as a 'good wife and wise mother'. Instilled with the Confucian ethic of the 'three obediences' that defined femininity (being obedient to father before marriage, husband upon marriage and the eldest son when old), she was unable to pursue romance for the sake of her own happiness. Despite an unhappy marriage arranged by her father, she managed to be a ryôsai kenbo. She tolerated her husband's adultery, continuously producing children in order to get a boy to become heir for the household business and shifting her unfulfilled hopes into finding meaning in life by rearing her children and running the family's retail shop. She worked industriously to support her children and mother-in-law after she became a widow. She never thought to remarry because she felt a mother should persevere and sacrifice her own pleasure for her children's happiness. She felt the most accomplished and productive period in her life was the time she raised her six children and ran the home business in her thirties and forties, Mrs. Matsumoto was content with her roles as a caretaker and a homemaker. However, when she became older, changes in the postwar family system meant that 'the couple' became the basic social unit and she was divested of her rights to become a mother-in-law who could rely on her eldest son. She had no choice but to live in an aged-care home where she began to search for salvation in religion. She faithfully conducted daily services to her religion, and she believed that religion helped her cope well with her institutional life. Inside the institution, in order to maintain autonomy, Mrs. Matsumoto took part in various kinds of cultural and recreational activities such as calligraphy, handicrafts and table tennis club, and she volunteered to clean the teapots as well as the dining hall after each meal to gain a sense of domesticity—as if she was still a housekeeper in her own home. She negotiated interpersonal relationships well: keeping in constant contact with her children, being sensitive to what her peers expected her to do, being considerate and patient with others so as to ensure a harmonious atmosphere among fellows and constantly exchanging presents with others in order to fulfill obligation [giri] in interpersonal relations.[17] Though she sometimes criticised the younger generation for loosing sight of virtues such as loyalty and filial piety and she sometimes felt herself to be a victim caught between the old and new regimes, she accepted her fate to live out her days in Sazanka. Her old roles as a mother and a homemaker and new roles as a religious devotee, hobby practitioner, and a senior resident of the Kotobuki community had made Mrs. Matsumoto feel that her institutional life was comfortable and meaningful.
  14. When I interviewed him, Mr. Kazuo Gotô was a seventy-seven-year-old man paralysed on his left side who was formerly homeless. He came to live in Sazanka after he became a recipient of Livelihood Protection [seikatsu hogo] when he was found collapsed in the street because of a cerebral infarction. Although in the eyes of others, he was a failure, supported by welfare-a man who had failed to make a contribution to either society or the family, he had his own evaluation of his life. Having been educated under the 'family-State' nationalist education system, 'to be loyal to the emperor [and] patriotic to the nation' [chûkun aikoku], Mr. Gotô had faithfully fulfilled his duties as the 'son of the emperor' and the son of his parents in his early years by joining the army during the war and by supporting his parents soon after the war. As men were supposed to marry, take on the responsibility to support their family and succeed in their careers, Mr. Gotô married, found a good job in local government and was for a while very successful in his life. He regarded his thirties and early forties as his golden age when he was able to make big money, buy property, marry a younger wife and be surround by many fawning friends and relatives. However, his greed, attachment to gambling, and investment in bad stocks resulted in him losing everything including money, property, social status and family. Family, he felt, is the last refuge for a man. But Mr. Gotô did not have this privilege despite the fact that he married three times and had one daughter. He saw his wives as simple 'side-dishes to his rice', as a kind of security in life. He did not cherish his wives but treated them as subordinates. He divorced his first wife because of her inability to bear a child, deserted his second wife when he wanted to go to Tokyo to make big money, and was divorced by his third wife for neglect of their family. Although Mr. Gotô was now grateful to the government which enabled him to live a decent life, he still felt it was the last resort to be living in a facility because an old man, no matter whether he had failed in his life or not, should be taken care of at home.
  15. How did Mr. Gotô deal with this fate, ending up in Sazanka and with his prior status as a homeless person? And how did he cope with institutional life? Mr. Gotô put his physical disability, prior homelessness and destiny down to the sins he had committed, primarily his long neglect of his family responsibilities. This spiritual understanding helped him accept punishment and tolerate loneliness. Though he missed his daughter, he was unwilling to contact his family because he did not want his disgraced status to bring humiliation to them. Inside the home, except for his roommate, Mr. Gotô held back from socialising with others for he was unwilling to talk about his past, and because he lacked the resources to fulfil his social obligation in reciprocal interactions. Reassured that his posthumous rituals would be conducted by the home, he was saving money for his funeral from his small amount of monthly pocket money in order to fulfill his last responsibility of taking responsibility for his own death.
  16. Mr. Chinseki Aoki, a recovered mental patient, is a seventy-eight-year-old resident of Akashia. The eldest son of a local politician's family, he was raised solely by his grandmother. This established a natural distance between himself and his mother. He was so timid and feeble-minded that he was often ill-treated by his sisters and brothers. He was called a 'grandmother's child' and thought of as 'not acting like a respectable boy' or 'a good boy wouldn't do a thing like that' [otoko-rashiku nai]. His mild temperament, physical weakness and inability to be a leader meant he could not become a soldier as his fellows did. His unstable psychological state led to his being deemed 'mad' as well as to his confinement in a mental hospital, because his family was concerned that he not incite ridicule or reflect badly on them—a concern that was crucial for survival in prewar times. Mr. Aoki became a schizophrenic during his second period of hospitalisation, and he was eventually discharged into the community at the age of forty-nine. Though he had long hoped for love and acceptance from his family, he was virtually abandoned by his mother and siblings. Because of his illness, he lost all inheritance rights to the household, was forbidden to live with his family, was not informed about the funeral of his father, and excluded from the institution of marriage. He felt both anguish and despair at the attitude of his family and the social prejudice towards mental patients in Japan. To compensate for his unfulfilled desire to be accepted by his family, he tried to find meaning in his life through study, and in realising his dream to be a scholar. He kept on self-learning, and got a sense of achievement by publishing his haiku and essays in newspapers and magazines. He managed to live by himself in a small apartment and earned his own living by working for a company until retirement. After coming to live in Akashia, Mr. Aoki continued his life-long career: studying to become a scholar. He understood that socialisation was important in group life, so he served to help others and keep good relationships with both his peers and staff members. He regarded Akashia as his last refuge.
  17. Mrs. Tsumako Yamaguchi is one of the oldest residents in Aoba. Her life experience represents an exceptional model of womanhood for her generation. She was born in 1906 in Hiroshima. In an era when the purpose of higher education for middle-class women was to produce 'good wives' for soldiers of industry [sangyô senshi] and 'wise mothers' to raise children who were able to devote themselves to the emperor and the nation, university education was deemed unnecessary for a woman. Those women who went to the universities were thought to be either single women who had missed marriageable age or 'new women' who had a different ideology about womanhood. Mrs. Yamaguchi was one of very few such female students who had received university education, and a type of new woman who wanted to achieve personal fulfilment through career. She was one of few women of her generation who was able to continue her professional career even after marriage. This owed much to the influence of Taisho democracy trends on women's life styles and her supportive husband. Despite the dominant ideology of 'good wife, wise mother', Mrs. Yamaguchi was influenced by the free educational mood in missionary institutions for girls, and decided to become an autonomous individual. The role of her husband in shaping her life was also prominent. He was a Christian who agreed with co-education and the equal status of man and woman, and he thought it right that a woman be able to support herself through a good education. Because of his view of the equal status of wife and a husband, Mrs. Yamaguchi was able to continue working as a Japanese teacher in foreign countries during the war. After the war, Mrs. Yamaguchi became a 'good partner' rather than 'good wife'; helping with her husband's social welfare enterprises. She devoted herself to the professional field of practical social work for children and achieved much. She paid more attention to her career than to nurturing her only child. For her, work always came before motherhood. She felt a conflict between work and family and thought the biggest failure in her life was her inability to be a good mother. Motherhood is still deemed to be the most appropriate role a Japanese woman should perform. Now, confined to a wheelchair, Mrs. Yamaguchi was trying her best to maintain her autonomy and avoid being a burden to others. When pain tortured her body, she could only escape by contemplating her younger days filled with dreams and enthusiasm, dwelling on her endeavours and career accomplishments in the past.
  18. As can be seen in the narratives of the four residents, although the dark image of old-age institutions has brightened over the decades, the older generations born in the Meiji and Taisho periods who were brought up under the ie system still feel nostalgia for the security and warmth of the traditional family system in which elderly parents lived with their children. However when they found this ideal to be no longer possible, they faced reality and adjusted themselves to institutional life. Unexpectedly, after they adjusted to their place in the home, they found that the safe environment, material provisions, care services and cultural and recreational programs in the homes offered them safety and comfort as well as the opportunity to construct new meanings in their lives.


    [1] I am grateful to Dr. Mark McLelland for helping correct my English and offering editorial advice. Thanks also to Anne-Marie Medcalf for selecting the interview stories and for her useful suggestions for drawing out the implications of gender in this Introduction.

    [2] This derives from the Confucian ethic of filial piety, the tradition of respect for the elderly and ancestor worship. The patriarchal ie system, which was firmly institutionalised during the Meiji period, is often regarded as a system that entitles the aged to receive support from their children, especially the eldest son, who became the head of a household.

    [3] See Fukuzawa, Shichiro, Narayama Bushiko,Tokyo: Shinchô Bunko, 1964.

    [4] See Miura, Fumio, Zusetsu Kôreisha Hakusho 1996. Tokyo: Zenkoku Shakai Fukushi Kyôgikai, 1996.

    [5] To protect the privacy of my informants, the name of the institution used in this study is a pseudonym. The Kotobuki home is comprised of the three different types of aged care homes which are regulated in the 1963 Law for the Welfare of the Elderly. Please refer to paragraph 7 for detailed explanation.

    [6] Sazanka: camellia, the name of the home for the elderly [yôgo rôjin hômu] in Kotobuki.

    [7] Akashia: acacia, the name of a home for the elderly with moderate fees [keihi rôjin hômu] in Kotobuki.

    [8] Aoba: green leaf, the name of a special nursing home for the elderly [tokubetsu yôgo rôjin hômu] in Kotobuki.

    [9] A kind of Japanese welfare policy which is similar to public assistance in the western welfare states. Based on the principle of Article 25 in the Japanese Constitution, The Law of Livelihood Protection was established in 1950 in order to protect citizens in poverty. Its purpose is to ensure the minimum standard of living and to promote the independence of poor people. According to this law, there are seven kinds of aid to the destitute: 1 an allowance to meet the needs of daily life; 2 subsidy for compulsory education; 3 housing subsidy; 4 medical allowance; 5 aid for child delivery; 6 subsidy for operating a business; and 7 aid for funeral. See Minerubâ Shobô eds, Shakaifukushi Shô-roppô [Small Six Laws for Social Welfare], Kyoto: Minerubâ Shobô, 1997. In Kotobuki, a recipient of Livelihood Protection receives about 20,000 yen pocket money per month, free articles for daily life, free medical treatment and aid for funeral when he /she dies.

    [10] A kind of body corporate which is established for the purpose of engaging in social welfare businesses. It is regulated by the 1951 Law of Social Welfare Enterprise [shakai fukushi jigyô-hô]. It mainly operates various kinds of welfare institutions defined by welfare related laws such as the Livelihood Protection 1950 [seikatsu hogo-hô], the Law for the Welfare of Children 1947 [jidô fukushi-hô], Welfare Law for Fatherless Family and Widows 1964 [boshi oyobi kafu fukushi-hô], the Law for the Welfare of the Elderly 1963 [rôjin fukushi-hô], the Law for the Welfare of the Physically Disabled 1949 [shintai shôgai-sha fukushi-hô], and the Law for the Welfare of the Mentally Handicapped 1960 [seishin hakujaku-sha fukushi-hô], etc. See Mineruva Shobô Henshûbu, Shakaifukushi Shô-roppô [Small Six Laws for Social Welfare], Kyoto: Minerubâ Shobô,1997.

    [11] The preindustrial Japanese household, or ie, was the basic unit of the samurai community in the Edo period 1600-1868. It was also the primary unit of social organisation in prewar Japan. In Kinship and Economic Organisation in Rural Japan, New York: Humanities Press, 1967, the famous Japanese anthropologist Nakane Chie pointed out four main features of ie: its corporate nature, its composition, its structure of authority, and its function as a unity of production and reproduction. All these features were designed to maintain household status and wealth. See Kathleen Uno, 'Women and Changes in the Household Division of Labor,' in Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945, ed. Gail Lee Bernstein, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1991, pp. 17-41.

    The corporate nature of the ie shaped household priorities. Preservation of household property, occupation, name and status in the local community were deemed vital. The fundamental goal was household continuity, not the well-being of individual members. Adults trained young female members, such as brides [yome] and daughters, and male members including sons and servants, to subordinate their personal hopes for vacation, education, or marriage to household needs.

    The line of succession was the axis of the structure of ie. The vertical line was regarded as of supreme importance over the collateral link. Only one child remained in the household with the parents after marriage. Normally the eldest son succeeded to the headship, but if a household lacked sons, a daughter's husband [muko] could be adopted to serve as the next head. The successor and his/her spouse produced children to assume the responsibility for the household in the next generation. Under the ie institution, the wife and daughter-in-law who came from outside had greater importance than one's own sisters and daughters, who had married and joined other households. A brother, when he had established a separate house, was thought of as belonging to another social group.

    Cultural norms designed authority within the household. The household head [koshu], usually a male, possessed the greatest nominal authority. He had to engage in various tasks to maintain the household. Though women were assigned a lower status, filial piety conferred respect for and obedience to one's older parents regardless of sex. Thus older women could gain a measure of authority and respect after long years' faithful labour for the household. Among women, the spouse of the current head, or housewife [shufu], usually had the most authority, while the successor's wife often had a hard life under the authority of her mother in-law.

    From the Tokugawa period into the mid-twenties century, ie was a unity for production and reproduction. Productive work sustained the ie by producing essential goods and income. And reproductive work such as childrearing, cooking, and housekeeping, maintained the ie members. The proximity of production and reproduction allowed men, women and children alike to participate in tasks crucial to the household continuity.

    [12] The definition of Japanese women as 'Good Wife, Wise mother' emerged in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. Along with its efforts to remake Japan into a modern state through compulsory education, industrialisation, military modernisation and constitutionalism, the Meiji government began to construct gender in order to create a new citizenry dedicated to the nation and loyal to the emperor [chûkun aikoku]. For example, see Gail Lee Bernstein, 'Introduction,' in Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945, ed. Gail Lee Bernstein, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1991; and Kathleen S. Uno, 'The Death of "Good Wife, Wise Mother"'? in Postwar Japan as History, ed. Andrew Gordon, Oxford, England: University of California Press, 1993.

    The term ryôsai kenbo defined women as managers of domestic affairs in households and nurturers of children. From the late 1890s until the end of World War II, the ideal model of womanhood as 'good wife, wise mother' increasingly pervaded the mass media and the higher levels of public and private girls' schools and colleges that influenced the upper-class Japanese, and came to constitute the official discourse on women in Japan. However, the ideal of 'good wife, wise mother' in the Taisho era was slightly different from that of the late Meiji period, when wifehood was more emphasised as the proper role of a woman. In late Meiji, a 'good wife' would have been the helpmate of her husband for the common interests of the house, and as her share of duty to the State. She should have supported her husband 'by sympathy and encouragement, by relieving him of his anxieties at home, managing household affairs, and above all, tending the old people and bringing up the children in a fit and proper manner.' See Robert J. Smith, 'Gender Inequality in Contemporary Japan,' Journal of Japanese Studies 13, 1 (Winter 1987):8. In addition, she should be chaste, frugal, hardworking and respectful of her in-laws. This constitutes the traditional view of 'good wife, wise mother'.

    Influenced by the trends of Taisho democracy, there appeared in urban areas, especially in private Christian college and universities, a kind of education emphasising humanism and individualism based on love, freedom and equality of both sexes. Some critical educators enlightened with western values, leftists and feminists began to spread different visions of womanhood through their writings and protests. A new 'good wife, wise mother' model was developed. It regarded the wife as a partner of her husband sharing equal status with him. And a wise mother should have received good education so that she could rear her children wisely in accordance with the latest scientific knowledge and practice. See Akie Shôko, 'Ryôsai kenbo shugi kyôiku no itsudatsu to kaishû' in Onna to otoko no jikû - Nihon josei-shi saikô, ed. Okuda Akiko, Hujiwara Shoten, 1995, pp. 451-54. From the 1920s to the 1930s, in the context of rising militarism, motherhood rather than wifehood became the more important component of the 'good wife, wise mother' in both social policy and action of the State.

    After 1945, the extensive restructuring of the Japanese State and society affected conceptions of womanhood including the 'good wife, wise mother'. The American occupation nurtured 'peace and democracy' to prevent future Japanese militarism. The new constitution and revised legal codes granted Japanese women political, economic and civil l rights in voting, managing property, inheriting part of their husband's estate, equality in employment, education, marriage and divorce, etc. And the old ethics in education that emphasised 'loyalty', 'filial piety', 'family-state' and 'good wife, wise mother' vanished from school classrooms. However, these sudden, drastic postwar changes did not eliminate the influence of ryôsai kenbo. The ideal of 'good wife, wise mother' remained an influence on the discussion of femininity in Japan into the late 1980s. Kathleen S. Uno, 'The Death of "Good Wife, Wise Mother"'? in Postwar Japan as History, ed. Andrew Gordon, Oxford, England: University of California Press, 1993.

    [13] For example, Susan J Pharr, 'The Japanese Woman: Evolving Views of Life and Role' in Asian Women in Transition, ed. Sylvia A. Chipp and Justin J. Green, The Pennsylvania State University, 1976, p. 40 and Kathleen S. Uno, 'The Death of "Good Wife, Wise Mother"'? in Postwar Japan as History, ed. Andrew Gordon, Oxford, England: University of California Press, 1993, p. 299, share the same view that the prewar roles and status of women were not only reinforced by the institutionalisation of ryôsai kenbo in the educational system but also in the family system of the ie, or the stem-family household. The old Civil code of 1898 defined the family ie as the foundation of the state by equating filial piety with loyalty to the emperor and by exalting the emperor as the father of all Japanese people in the family-state {kazoku kokka]. It also defined woman's subordinate status to men in the family. Women were placed under the authority of a male head of household who controlled the family assets, assumed responsibility for all family members, and approved marriages of women under twenty-five and man under thirty years of age. In provisions relating to divorce, marriage, property rights and other family related issues, the Civil Code consistently favoured the husband. Adultery constituted legal grounds for divorce only if it was committed by the wife. It was regarded as proper for a husband to divorce his wife while keeping the children in his own family to bear his name. If a man fathered children by women other than his wife, he was legally entitled to adopt them into the family. If her husband died, a wife came under the authority of her eldest son who had inherited the headship of the household. So most women in prewar Japan spent their entire lifetime before and after marriage as legal dependents of the male household head.

    [14] See Sharon H. Nolte and Sally Ann Hastings, 'The Meiji State's Policy Towards Women, 1890-1910,' in Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945, ed. Gail Lee Bernstein, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1991, pp. 151-74.

    [15] See John W. Dower,'"Peace and Democracy in Two Systems,' in Postwar Japan as History, ed. Andrew Gordon, Oxford, England: University of California Press, 1993, p. 3.

    [16] For example, Susan J Pharr, 'The Japanese Woman: Evolving Views of Life and Role,' in Asian Women in Transition, ed. Sylvia A. Chipp and Justin J. Green, The Pennsylvania State University, 1976; Anne E. Imamura, Urban Japanese Housewives: At Home and in the Community, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987; Sumiko Iwao, The Japanese Women: Traditional Image and Changing Reality, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993; Nancy R. Rosenberger, 'Fragile Resistance, Signs of Status: Women between State and Media in Japan,' in Reimaging Japanese Women, ed. A. Imamura, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

    [17] According to Sumiko Iwao, The Japanese Women: Traditional Image and Changing Reality, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 32, being a household manager and a caretaker of children, socialising with others in the family, community and other social organisations, maintaining harmony and establishing reciprocal relationships, as well as finding fulfillment in being of help to others are what Japanese women traditionally lived for. Family, community and fellows were 'the only medium through which they could find identity and meaning in their lives.'


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 18 March 2008 1002 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright