Japanese society is often thought of as much more group-oriented than that of American society; many scholars believe that the traditional Japanese family structure (ie) is largely responsible for this.  This essay will attempt to show just what the family structure in Japan actually is, and also examine how that system acts as a model for other aspects of Japanese life, influencing them to be very group-oriented.

First, we examine the Japanese “family system” known as ie. The ie, traditionally, was the formal ordering of the family—it contained set roles for the family head, successors, children, and even the deceased.  The different roles and generations of the ie “were characterized by Confucian principles of loyalty and benevolence”—the younger generations saw their duty to the house “as loyalty to their parents for benevolence received.” (Hendry 25)  An individual in the family was thought of as owing the family for raising and caring for him or her, and so giving back to the family was how they repaid their debt—and continued the cycle by improving the next generations.  In this way, “The continuing entity was more important than any individual member, and individual members were expected to find their raison d'etre in the maintenance and the continuity of the ie.” (Hendry 24)  So, family members were judged primarily on their ability to carry their share of the load.  Sometimes, if outsiders who married into the family were found to be “unsuitable” due to their inability to “carry on with their expected duties”, they were removed from the ie and returned to their own house.  (Hendry 26)

The ie was abolished as a legal unit during the Allied Occupation following World War II, as it was seen as a relic of the feudalism the Occupation was trying to stamp out. The legacy of ie, however, lives on today—as Hendry notes, “the notion of the ie continues to be held quite happily in many parts of Japan.” (Hendry 27-29)  First, regardless of legal basis, “members of a family living under one roof will conceptualize their unit as a continuing ie” in many parts of Japan. (Hendry 31)  While the legal system implemented in the Civil Code set strict guidelines for partitioning up inheritances, for example, often “non-inheriting children will sign away their rights for the sake of the ie, if one of their number agrees to take on the responsibility of the family home.” (Hendry 36)  Thus, a new head for the ie is informally chosen from the remaining family members, effectively circumventing the law.  This is, in fact, what happened to Kyoko Mori (as chronicled in Polite Lies) after her father (Hiroshi) died—when she flew to Japan for her father’s funeral, she was asked by the other members of the family to sign away her right to her father’s inheritance and recognize her father’s wife, Michiko, as the sole inheritor.  (Mori 48-52)

The ie acts as a microcosm of the larger Japanese society—the primary principle of the ie, putting the family before one’s own needs, can be seen in many other aspects of Japanese life.  In large Japanese businesses, for example, “…for company employees the company itself has taken over the traditional role of the ie.  In the way that parents expected loyalty from their children, a company superior expects total loyalty from his subordinates.” (Hendry 39)  Even the Japanese words for a superior (oyabun) and a subordinate (kobun), literally mean “parent-part” and “child-part”, respectively.  (Hendry 39)  The traditional shogun system also can be seen as a variation of the ie system—the shogun is the head of the “family”, and all those under him were thought of as being indebted to the shogun for favors previously given—and, similar to ie, “loyalty to the ultimate leader was a paramount virtue” (Hendry 13)

A second area in which draws influences from family structure is that of language.  The harsh distinction between those in one’s ie and those outside of it can be seen as an influencing factor in the different levels of politeness in the Japanese language—the language allows much more freedom and informality when speaking with a family member than others.  Hendry notes that even for very close friends and other situations that call for informal speech, “a slightly different type of behaviour is appropriate” for each different group. (Hendry 46)  Just as each ie “was regarded as having its own customs or ‘ways’” (Hendry 26), so does each group one deals with in life have its own particular linguistic tones and inflections in the language to separate them from each other.

Even in popular Japanese television programs, we can see shadows of ie.  In many popular cartoons (Sailor Moon and Power Rangers, both originally created in Japan, come to mind), group unity is an important theme.  These groups usually have a leader who acts as the main protagonist, but the concepts of working together and loyalty to the group usually overshadow individual needs and accomplishments.  This concept is repeated to the point of being formulaic; when one member of the group gets in trouble, they almost never try to tackle the situation alone.  He or she immediately calls for help, and only when the entire group is there can the evil menace be vanquished.

 While ie may have been officially banished in 1947 by the Allied Occupation, its legacy lives on—not only in the family unit, but in larger Japanese society as well.


EALC 150 Article Packet.  University of Illinois, Fall Semester 2000.

Hendry, Joy.  Understanding Japanese Society (second edition).  New York: Routledge,

Mori, Kyoko.  Polite Lies.  New York: The Ballantine Publishing

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