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WHAT IS IE?...............................................1

MANS ROLE UNDER IE...........................4

WOMANS ROLE...........................................6

GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS..................7

CHANGING TIMES......................................12






           Although I originally intended to write a paper comparing the ie of the Japanese family with the very similar system governing the Korean family, a paucity of information about the Korean system and an unanticipated quantity of material on the Japanese system forced me to revise my original plan. As with many other comparisons between social institutions of Japan and Korea there are more similarities than differences, and so I intended to leave it up to the readers to make their own assumptions about the operation of the Korean family. That was until I received my revised instructions which called for the inclusion of some information about the Korean system, I have also added thoughts on the western system as it provides good contrast to Asia.




           Ie is a Japanese word which describes the structure, familial bonds, assets and activities of a Japanese family. Unlike the western concept of a family in which one knows of their ancestors but feels no particular bond with them, has an immediate family and loves them but feels no particular need to carry on their bloodline and although their parents did a fine job of raising them feels no longing to live with them in their old age. The Japanese concept of Ie includes more than simply a responsibility to do all these but has implicit in its meaning a sense of duty attached to it which makes the familys past, present and future more important than any one member of the family. The situation can be closely compared to a feeling of nationalism in which the nation and its stature are of paramount importance and so tend to negate the importance of the individual.

           The family unit is composed of the eldest son, the parents, unmarried brothers and sisters and also the forebears and descendants. Of these the eldest son, being the one to take over the family  headship, is the most important and also suffers the most pressure.

            The familys continuity in its traditional status is made possible by each member of the family carrying out their preordained role in the family structure. In order to do this the maintenance of the family assets must be closely guarded. A Japanese family is frequently defined as family business and in much the same way that a company would look out for its future interests the  Japanese family does too!

           The status of each individual within the family is determined by a hierarchical structure based on the Confucian model of the five relationships[1]. When the father reaches an age in which it is no longer practical or desirable for him to continue the family headship it is passed on to the oldest son. In the event that there are younger sons, they are put out in branches of the original ie and are supposed to owe allegiance to the main branch. They do claim the main branch as their origin but any allegiance beyond that is rare.


           Ie as an idea began in eleventh century Japan but was institutionalized through Confucian doctrines in the Tokugawa Shogunate of the nineteenth century. It originated in the Samurai, rich merchant and farming classes but quickly spread to all levels of society in the next half century. Indicative of the times was the Imperial Rescript on Education promulgated in 1890 which closely paralleled one of the basic tenets of  ie requiring self-sacrifice for the good of the family, it reads in part:


           ...Ye. Our subjects, be filial to your parents...should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and...render illustrious the      best traditions of your forefathers.[2]


This document and its message were worked into the curriculum of all students up to middle school as part of the national strengthening movement (the Meiji Restoration) that would eventually culminate in World War II.

           Ie was not only for families but was also the principle by which business and other large organizations functioned . By the 1930s ie and this sense of nationalism made the Japanese one of the most tightly knit societies in the world and helped to instill in them a sense of mutual dependency of unprecedented proportions. After the conclusion of World War II, it was believed that ie was partially responsible for the militarism prior to the war so the powers that be attempted to dislodge it through the wording of the new constitution. The net effect was to remove it from the public domain but it remained as the defining principle in the family unit and in business.





           Historically the father was the head of the house hold, his word was law and his authority was unchallenged. In the event that an unfit successor stood to inherit the position, he could remove the offenders name from the family register (thereby disowning him). Since the end of the nineteenth century he was the only person in the family who could own family assets, and no contracts could be negotiated by any other member of the family without his approval. When the father passed the headship to his eldest son, the son then inherited not only the family assets, but all the powers formerly held by the father, including the responsibility of caring for the aged parents, until the promulgation of the constitution the eldest son was required by law to care for the parents.

           Along with the new constitution came many other changes which weakened the traditional position of the head of household. Inheritance laws were redrafted and now allowed for equal distribution of the family assets to all members of the household. The shift of the war time manpower into private industry reduced the size of the modern family and placed the family head into the position of sole breadwinner. This shift to an advanced industrial society left a vacuum in the headship of the family at home, the expanding roles of the mother then filled this void.

           The authority of the modern head of household has declined drastically from his once great position of glory, although in name the male is still the undisputed king of the home it is just not so in fact. The requirements of work and post-work bonding  extract a heavy toll from the man, he spends most of his time during the week at work, often staying late or attending after work get togethers in bars which are an integral part of work and can spell success or failure for a company employee (if a man comes home from work early the wife is usually worried that he is not fitting in at the work). On weekends he usually works a half day Saturday and may even swing by the office on Sunday to show allegiance to the company. At home he is little more than a shadow of a father who has no time to wield his authority. Though this shift to a mother dominated household has displaced the fathers authority at home, outside in the business world male dominance is still a harsh reality.



           The role of the woman in the family has also undergone considerable changes. Traditionally her role was similar to that of a slave, her main purpose in life was to produce a male heir and oversee the running of the inside of the house. Infertile or impure wives ran the risk of being sent back, they were also bound to follow a set of rules which forbid them from; frequently appearing in public, being irreverent to the parents in law, speaking excessively and acting frivolously as such behavior could bring shame on the house. 

           Japans emergence as a modern industrial power has moved the mother into the vacuum created by the fathers absence and has resulted in a matriarchal environment in the home. The mothers new role makes her a virtual slave to her children in their younger years (using baby-sitters is considered child neglect) and leaves her abandoned as the children begin school. In the old model the family was a place to exchange news and ideas while sharing a meal, now the father is absent from the dinner table most of the time and the kids spend the majority of the day in school or in a juku (an after school private institute which prepares the child for eventual entry into a university). The bored mother not being burdened by house work in a small Japanese style house usually seeks entertainment in local organizations or through a part time job while the kids are in school and fawns over them excessively while they are home.

           The modern family generally does not live with their parents anymore but the parents now sometimes live with their children. The new power of the mother has made her less willing to heed the advice of mother in-laws when they come to visit. And economic concerns have reduced the size of the modern Japanese family, in 1989 the average number of children was 1.7; this reduction of children means they no longer have many brothers and sisters to relate to and instead bond primarily with their mother. Eventual separation is becoming increasingly difficult for both the mothers and the children.





           Ie entails much more than just the living members of a family; it embodies all the ancestors of the family to date and all the descendants to come. The ancestors are revered for having done their part in the continuation of the family line and are frequently the object of rituals honoring their memory. The current living members of the family are expected to act appropriately to uphold the good name of the family heritage. The descendants to come are the driving force behind the dedication felt by the various members; all that is done is for the maintenance and improvement of the household and those who will inherit it.

           In order to fulfill the heavy responsibility of maintaining and improving the family assets and stature, and providing a host of quality heirs to continue the tradition the family must be managed in a sound manner by a family head capable of making rational decisions, much the same way a companys operation is run. To insure this, the family too is run very much like a business.

           In the case of a family business, its operation is frequently left up to the eldest son, should that son fail to be diligent he is subject to being removed from head ship of the business and another suitable successor will be found. In such cases where there is no second son to take over responsibility a suitable replacement will be adopted (generally a cousin or other relative) and will be installed as the familys successor. The displaced son will, in extreme cases be disowned, or in mild cases be given five percent of the familys assets and be sent off to start his own branch of the family[3]. In other words, rather than blindly giving the head position in the family business to the next heir regardless of his ability, he must first prove his ability to run the business profitably and then he is given a free reign. Clearly the overriding concern in this case is the familys assets which have importance over heirs in the bloodline.

           In times past barren brides were sent back to her parents; today few would openly admit that kind of attitude persists but the stark reality is that women who are known to be infertile have a very low rate of marriage. Another fact not readily admitted is the high number of arranged marriages, in 1987 it was estimated that forty percent of all marriages were arranged[4] although few readily admitted they married for reasons other than love. A womans education prepares her from an early age to be a wife,[5] instilling in her the thought that a womans main objective in life is to get married and have children. Indeed if a woman doesnt get married by the time she is twenty six she is considered a bit strange. The majority of positions available for college graduate women in Japan are only available for young  women; it is assumed that they will all get married by the late twenties and quit work.     The common practice in the west of living together is not so common in Japan; it is believed by most to be okay, but few are interested in trying it themselves. It goes against the principles instilled in women about lifes objective and does not contribute to the ie.

           A womans parents under ie have a responsibility to see that she finds a good house to get married into and as such must prepare her for her future marriage by insuring she gets a proper education; a well educated woman generally will go to a family of higher status. Likewise to insure the future of their own ie they must prepare their son to be an adequate successor by seeing him through a higher education. For both sons and daughters the educational process is the most important part of their childhood. The defining moment in a childs life is the university entrance examination. During the week of the examination most every major magazine in Japan covers little else but the exams, mothers and family crowd out in front of the schools waiting for results as the students take a test that will decide their position in society for the rest of their lives, this in turn determines their ability to either marry into a good family or provide for their own family as successor.


           Very much like the nationalism that swept Japan during and after the Meiji Restoration, ie has swept through the Japanese family. School boys were taught to selflessly give all, even their lives for their country. That sense still exists in modern business where salary men ignore their family on a personal level and their health while working  themselves to death (Karoshi) for the company. It is this same selfless sacrifice to ie which drives people to find mates based on fertility and educational background while ignoring the personal happiness that a love based marriage may bring. It also spurs fathers to replace their sons in the family business and adopt a new son to take over. It forces son-less fathers to either divorce and find new wives or adopt a son to carry on the headship. And it drives parents to expend all their concentration and vast quantities of their expendable income on the upbringing of their children while virtually ignoring their own comfort, health or happiness. The continuation of the family has overriding concern over any one member and all are willing to sacrifice their very lives to propagate the family name.





           The inescapable Western influence which is making its mark throughout Asia has not left Japan untouched. Its trademark increased sense of personal freedom has gotten a foothold with the younger generation. Since the 1960s when the increasingly mobile work-force started to increase families have begun to drift apart from each other with the younger generations gaining their independence, even eldest sons can escape their parents house these days; but seldom can they escape the duties of ie. In days past the children lived with the parents but now the roles are reversed and the parents are living with the children. Accordingly, dual unit houses in which the parents can live with the children while the children maintain there independence are becoming more popular. In the past unmarried children (particularly women) were never allowed to acquire their autonomy while today it is becoming commonplace. In compensation for the distancing of the various family members family gatherings on special days for large feasts are starting to become more common which may help maintain the strong family ties.

           There is also a revolution beginning at the workplace; many fathers, not satisfied with the minimal amount of time they have for their families are starting to demand more free time. They are avoiding late nights at the office and the post work get togethers. Some companies are responding by reducing the five and a half day work week to only five and are encouraging employees to leave the office earlier.





           In comparison to other Asian countries like Korea, the business of the Japanese family doesnt seem too out of place. After all, in Korea the business of furthering a daughters education to insure she goes to the best educated boy (highest bidder) is well documented. Likewise the boys going to college so he can not only get a good job (furthering the family assets) but also so he can marry an educated women is no secret. That barren women or women from non-traditional households (divorced, etc.) have difficulty finding a well educated boy to marry goes without saying. The Korean desire for a son carry on the family line and a wife who can help provide that son also reveal the business aspects of the Korean family, but here is where the Japanese pattern and the Korean pattern diverge. In Japan adoption is an alternative but in Korea it is virtually unheard of. Due to the different brands of Confucianism synthesized into their cultures the importance of direct blood relationships has different degrees of importance. The Korean participants may try that much harder to produce a son and it may even come to divorce but adoption is out of the question in almost all cases.

           To appreciate the severity of the business-like aspects of the Asian family system, the western system provides a stark contrast. A system in which marriage for any other reason except love is almost unheard of and neither formal education nor fertility play a role in choosing a spouse. A system which is indifferent to the sex of the children and doesnt require a male heir. Where love is unconditional and doesnt depend on one following the wises of their parents, and where there is also no risk of being disowned for merely doing as one wishes.











Kazuo, Kurimoto. Under New Management - The Family Past and Present-     The Changing Japanese Family. The Unesco Courier. July 1989. (pg.   28-33).

Biggar, Joanna. A Meeting of the Twain - What two American psychologists learned as they applied Western family therapy to contemporary Japanese life. Psychology Today. November 1987. (pg. 46-50).

Topolnicki, Denise M. A look Into Family Life - Japan. Money (magazine). 

           October 1991.

Vogel, Ezra. Japan as Number 1: Lessons for America. New York. Harper &

          Row. 1979                                     .

Okimoto, Daniel I. and Rohlen, Thomas P. (eds.). Inside the Japanese            System: Readings on Contemporary Society and Political Economy.    CA. Stanford University Press. 1988.

Smith, Robert J. Japanese society: Tradition, Self and the Social Order.          Cambridge University Press. 1983.

Christopher, Robert. The Japanese Mind. New York. Ballantine Books.          1983.

Aoi, K., Morioka, K. & Suginohara, J. Family and Community Changes in     East Asia. Japan Sociological Society. 1985.

[1]  The five relationships in classical Confucianism are, wife to husband, son to father, younger brother to older brother, subject to king and friends.

[2] Smith, Robert J. The Japanese Society; Tradition, Self and the Social Order. Cambridge University Press. 1983. (pg. 10).

[3] Kazuo, Kurimoto. Under New Management-The Family Past and Present-The Changing Japanese Family. The Unesco Courier. July 1989. (pg. 30).

[4] Christopher, Robert. The Japanese Mind. New York. Ballantine Books. 1983. (pg. 63).

[5] Kazuo, Kurimoto. Under New Management - The Family Past and Present - The Changing Japanese Family. The Unesco Courier. July 1989. (pg. 28).