Oldness is goodness: Is it truly a tradition?

by Sheena Sasaki

What is Japanese traditional food? What is Japanese worldwide known food? I am sure some people would tell me the answer sushi. However, sushi (vinegar rice topped with piece of raw fish), famous Japanese food, began to be eaten since Edo Period. Compared to relatively new nations such as the United States, 400 years of history for food may be long “tradition.” However, compared to Japanese history, which lasts since era of B.C., it is not significantly long. More important, sushi had been eaten only in limited areas of Japan since it uses fresh fish. Referring to Japanese geography as a mountainous land, it is impossible for some parts of Japan to come up with food such as raw fish. However, as the nationalization and globalization have taken place in Japan, sushi has become domestically and internationally known as a ‘traditional’ food of Japan. Thus, nationalization and internationalization have played a significant role in the invention of tradition in Japan.

This invention of tradition is becoming an issue in Japan today. In September 2013, the Japanese Supreme Court finally accepted that the law that limited  children born outside of marriage to inheriting only half the amount of “legitimate” children, as discrimination and a violation of Japan’s Constitution. Japanese denial and rejection of “illegitimate” children, adopted children, divorce, and married couples having different surnames is quite strong even now. It is not surprising to hear that children born outside of marriage were bullied in the school they attended during their youth. Also, some parents tell their children not to play with such children just because they lack real parents or their parents use different surnames.

Why do Japanese citizens strongly oppose different styles of family? Many people answer: “Because we do not want to destroy the traditional family system of Japan.” This traditional system of family is based on “ie (家)” and “koseki (戸籍)” which respectively mean house and family legislation. Thus, many Japanese citizens resist changing what is written on their koseki, with the exception of when a woman is married. However, the history of koseki is not so long as to be called traditional.

Influenced by Germany, Japan created the koseki system during the Meiji Period, the era of Japanese nationalization. The system was to support one royal family, imperial family of Japan. The imperial family is unchangeable, meaning one single bloodline is considered to be imperial. Thus, for this family to hold stronger and more important meaning, member of one koseki was also to pass down one blood. The Meiji-era civil code also stated that an ie must consist of single surname, single koseki, and single bloodline. Here, we see the family system putting an emphasis on one bloodline, which is considered as tradition today. In opposition to the word “tradition,” before the Meiji Period and the creation of koseki system, it was common to see adopted children reign as the head of the household. Compared to the ie system today, the family system used to emphasize more the surname of the household rather than bloodlines. Therefore, what is said to be the traditional family system in Japan has existed for only 100 years.

There is Japanese phrase “furuki yoki (古き良き)” which means that “old is good.” However, the invented tradition of the Japanese ie system does not seem to bring good anymore. Year by year, there is an increase of divorce, child adoption, and single parenting. These shapes of family are not considered proper families, and are targets of discrimination. Although the Japanese government has admitted that the law discriminates against certain children, the law itself has still not changed. The curse of “furuki yoki” still dominates the sense of discrimination.

Some links to news reporting issues of rights for illegitimate children

“家族とは?親子とは?揺らぐ法制度” http://www9.nhk.or.jp/gendai/kiroku/detail_3408.html

“婚外子差別の撤廃へ 民法改正案を閣議決定、戸籍法の改正は見送り” http://www.huffingtonpost.jp/2013/11/12/kongaishi-minpo-_n_4258246.html

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