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Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender, and the State, 1600-2000.

Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender, and the State, 1600-2000. By Harald Fuess (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. xiv plus 226 pp. $45.00).

What kind of impact did urbanization, industrialization, anomie, and the modern state have on families? In Europe and the United States, modernization led to increases in rates of divorce; in Japan they had the opposite effect, at least until the 1960s. Japan is also distinctive in having had much higher rates of divorce up to the 1890s. Fuess seeks to explain why these differences occurred, what caused the precipitous decline in Japan's divorce rate in the first half of the twentieth century, and what were the consequences for women who experienced divorce.

Many distinctive features in the way divorce is handled in Japan today can be explained by examining early modern practices. Most salient is the marginal role of state-sanctioned courts. Only contested cases wound up before a magistrate or with the woman fleeing to one of two Buddhist temples that acted as shelters. Even now, only about ten percent of divorces land in court; most are settled by mutual consent and documented through a simple act of registration at a local government office. In the United States, alimony and child support force couples to retain a relationship long after divorce; in Japan a common term for divorce, rien, literally means a severing of connections. In an early modern divorce, once the party who had moved in with the spouse's family had collected his or her belongings and left, that was it. Today the more affluent partner might pay a lump sum upon divorce, but seldom more. Until the age at marriage started rising in the twentieth century, most divorces occurred soon after marriage, and it was customary for both parties to remarry, sometimes several times in what could be called serial monogamy. For a time in the early twentieth century, divorcees carried a stigma. Such was not the case earlier, and for young women, it is not true today.

What are the consequences for women? In most societies, the assumption is that divorce favors the man. In the Christian and Islamic traditions, a divorcee is damaged goods, a broken vessel. Although many Western countries liberalized divorce laws after World War II, often with the express purpose of making it easier for women to get out of abusive relationships, divorcees are still likely to end up financial losers with a much slighter chance of getting remarried than their former spouses. In the Confucian tradition, men might divorce their wives for relatively trivial reasons, including illness or jealousy; no provision was made for wives to divorce husbands. According to Fuess, "recent scholarship" still argues that the husband's unilateral right to initiate divorce in early modern Japan victimized women (p. 78), yet he cites nothing published after 1974. Studies by Japanese scholars since the 1980s have dug up quantities of evidence that show how women took advantage of divorce. Fuess does not counter contemporary scholarship so much as supplement it by providing a detailed and useful study of how society viewed divorced women (more often blameless than fallen) and analyzing what the prevalence of divorce in Japan implies about the meaning of marriage.

High rates of divorce within a year or two of marriage suggest that getting married was a process of trial and error. Except among the ruling class, who married whom concerned only the families providing the partners, not the state, although there was some regional variation in this regard. Whether a couple married or simply co-habited depended on the region. Whether a woman married into a man's family or a man married into a woman's family, the newcomer had to go through a probationary period. If she or he did not, or could not, adjust to the family's ways, senior members of the two households negotiated a divorce. Signed by the husband, the divorce notice served as a license to remarry. Natal families supported daughters' efforts to seek divorce because they knew their daughter would not burden them economically. Conflict was most likely to arise over the goods brought to the marriage. Few disputed that a bride's personal items, her trousseau, went with her. When a bride or an adopted son-in-law brought money or property to the marriage, the two families were more likely to disagree over whether this constituted a dowry that became the possession of the family receiving the spouse. (Fuess makes little distinction between dowry and trousseau.) Although more women than men married out, adopted sons-in-law got divorced at a higher rate and were more likely to cause the kind of conflict that ended up in court. Fuess strives mightily to find patterns in what happened to children. The data reveal a tendency for boys to go with fathers; daughters with mothers, although depending on individual circumstances, all children stayed with the marital family.

In the late nineteenth century, divorce rates fell precipitously. In part this decline is a statistical artifact as what constituted marriage came to be defined in terms decreed by the state. It also owed something to the 1898 Civil Code that places new restrictions on mutual consent divorces. In contrast to contemporary feminist scholarship, Fuess sees the Civil Code as comparatively liberal because it did not eliminate this common practice. In the twentieth century the rate declined further. Marriages began with elaborate and expensive wedding ceremonies. Unlike a trousseau, money thus spent was gone forever. Around World War II, the practice of adopting a son-in-law virtually disappeared and with it, a major contributing factor to divorce. The regional and status based variations in rates of divorce smoothed out as Japan became more homogeneous, although rural areas still tended to see higher rates than urban.

Today Japan's divorce rate is rising, to the consternation of conservatives who fear for the future of the family. Divorcees are less stigmatized, and women find it easier to find employment. The emphasis on motherhood as a woman's most desirable role has meant that children are more likely to go with their mothers, and since marriages last longer before divorce, children are more likely to be involved. Divorced at a later age, women are less likely to remarry than their premodern counterparts, nor do they have natal families they can rely on. Whether or not divorce was detrimental to women in early modern times, it clearly has that potential today. Yet the popular perception is that divorce today is most likely to be initiated by women, either old women unwilling to look after a retired spouse, or young women whose inept grooms fail to meet their exacting standards.

Suitable for scholars interested in the comparative study of divorce, this book's thorny prose and high price will probably limit its appeal to students and generalists. Even specialists should be warned that much literature on the topic of marriage and divorce, especially in early modern Japan, falls outside its purview.

Anne Walthall

University of California, Irvine
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Author:Walthall, Anne
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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