Traditions Of Extended Family In Japan

The tradition of Japanese extended family is a very interesting example of tradition and culture affecting business practices. Many of the common Japanese management practices like ‘lifelong employment’ and ‘loyalty to company’ have their origins in the extended family, which included non family members, and was also a unit of trading or business, long before its legal acceptance.
Traditions of Extended Family in Japan
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The Extended Family in Japanese History

The extended family in Japan or "Ie" features as a regular feature of the Tokugawa period (1603 - 1868 A.D.) and is the precursor of many of the corporate practices followed by Japanese houses even today.

Family is the primary unit of all societies, and in most pre-industrialized societies, the family unit included relatives in addition to the couple and their children. To that extent the tradition of extended family in Japan is also no different. However, what makes it unlike any other extended family in the world are some of its characteristics that have never

been observed in any other family system.

More than a Family

It is important to understand that 'Ie' refers to a unit that is something more than a family. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that 'Ie' was as much a domestic unit as it was an economic one. Then it should come as no surprise that by the 'Domestic Relations and Inheritance Law' promulgated in 1898, registration of family and individuals was made mandatory, and rigid controls were imposed on it, something that we normally associate with 'companies' or other commercial units, not families. The reason for this act, to a large extent, might have been the functioning of many of these 'Ie' as commercial or business units at that time.

Legal Acceptance of Extended Family

In the early Tokugawa period, 'Ie' system was common only among the more affluent strata of the society. By the Act of 1898, it was extended to all including the peasants. In a way it was the attempt of the rulers of that time to institutionalize family on the lines of Tokugawa model. This also means that all families before that did not necessarily qualify as 'Ie'. The word "Uchi" may in that sense be more appropriate description of family based on conjugal and filial relations alone. Other words that have also been used to denote family are 'kazoku', coined in 19th century - which does not include non-relations living within the 'Ie', and the word, 'setai', which excludes the ancestors and future generations from the concept, thereby meaning something like the household in existence, unlike 'Ie' whose concept is more like a permanent patrilineal unit.

The Typical Family included Non-Family Members

In a typical extended household

or 'Ie', there could be multiple generations, but each of them will not have more than one married couple. The unit was headed by the 'House hold head', who was fully responsible to the authorities for the conduct of all the members of the ie, and also had complete authority over the property as well as members. The inheritance was patrilineal, with eldest son (in most cases) being designated as 'heir' and trained to carry on the family tradition and responsibility. The younger sons could continue as part of the family only till the time they did not marry and on marriage they had to leave and start their own separate household. The daughters, when married, had to go to the husband's family or household, and had no rights to inherit property. This way the social position of the women in extended family of Tokugawa model had significantly deteriorated since the 12th century when the women did have rights of inheriting property.

The 'Ie' usually included non family members too, like servants, apprentices, and acquaintances, who worked with the other family members. Other relatives like the brothers, brother's sons etc could also be adopted into the family. In the beginning of seventeenth century about one third of the family members of the 'ie' are said to be non-relatives.

Impact of Japanese Family to its Management Practices

Subsequent to the Meiji restoration, in the industrializing Japan, extended family became much more than a social domestic unit, and was frequently the commercial or trading unit as well. Several of its practices of Japanese management like the 'lifelong employment', 'emphasis on loyalty', 'preference of organizational interest over that of the individual' and 'harmony' can actually be traced to the functioning of business within the 'Ie'. Thus, the extended family traditions have played a very significant role in the developed of business practices of modern Japan. Also the reason that they were so successful in Japan may have a lot do with their acceptance in the prevailing culture of the time.

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