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Wives' final revolt in Japan

More women are rebelling against an ancient burial tradition that binds them to their in-laws for all eternity.

March 07, 2011|John M. Glionna

TOKYO — Snow had fallen at dawn one recent morning and the tombstones were dressed in white when Masako Hiraiwa took her daily stroll through Aoyama cemetery. A stray cat slipped daintily past a row of old stone markers.

Such a peaceful setting seemed an unlikely inspiration for a social rebellion women are waging against an ancient Japanese cultural tradition: being buried with their husbands' families.

You might call it the final frontier for women's equality in Japan.

The battle has struck Hiraiwa's own extended clan broadside. Her oldest brother's wife has decided to make arrangements for burial outside the family plot, stunning Hiraiwa's elderly parents.

"My parents counted on having her here with them," the 62-year-old said. "If she follows through on this plan, she'll be missing. It won't be right."

For centuries in this male-dominated society, women have been guided by the concept of ie, or household, in which wives are bound to their in-laws for life -- and beyond.

Formally abolished at the end of World War II, the system has hung on in many parts of Japan. Yet quality-of-life changes here, including climbing divorce rates, higher education levels and increased geographic and social mobility among women, mean many are now thumbing their nose at a tradition that often forces a lifelong divorce from their own families.

"Women are rebelling against the idea of being buried for eternity with people they didn't even like that much in life. They see it as a form of eternal torture," said Yoriko Meguro, a sociologist at Tokyo's Sophia University and former Japanese representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. "The refusal to be buried in the husband's ancestral plot is the last stand against traditional family confinement."

At Aoyama cemetery, one of Tokyo's largest public burial grounds, new sections are reserved for people who want to be buried alone or with a spouse, unconnected to larger family sites.

Activists say the burial requirement is one of many outdated responsibilities women are forced to shoulder within the Japanese family structure. Many must perform duties such as caring for their in-laws.

Some of those traditions are also being challenged. In February, six women filed a lawsuit fighting a 113-year-old civil law that precludes brides from keeping their surnames when they marry, insisting that the law violates their right to equality.

Sociologists say societal cracks first began appearing in the 1970s when young people started opting out of arranged marriages. The ensuing years continued the breakdown of the nation's extended family hierarchy. Couples divorced. Children moved cross-country from their parents. Daughters-in-law took demanding jobs that left them less time to devote to their in-laws.

"It's left the door open for ... changes in burial rites," Meguro said. "In modern life, you have to make choices. These decisions are no longer predesignated."

Yet tensions often arise as women shed responsibilities to their extended families.

"The concept that a woman no longer marries into her husband's family but solely chooses the individual is a fundamental change in Japanese society," said Kimiko Kimoto, a sociologist at Hitotsubashi University outside Tokyo. "It's been a step-by-step breakup of the three-generational household in Japan. For many families, a daughter-in-law's refusal to take care of her husband's parents and not wanting to be buried with them can cause serious marital problems, even divorce."

Decisions involving the graveyard seem to have caused the most friction in Japanese family politics.

In a 2009 study by a Japanese life insurance company, only 29% of women said they wanted to be buried in the family ancestral site, compared with 48% for men. More than 26% said cemeteries were no longer necessary, preferring to have their ashes spread at sea or on land, compared with 15% of men. Women say efforts to be buried with their own parents often fail because of tradition: Hidebound by the past, many families will politely turn their backs on a daughter, advising her to work things out with her in-laws.

Kimoto, who is in her mid-60s, said it is highly educated women who are seeking new roles within their families. "Many of my colleagues are rebelling and they are influencing the younger generation as well," she said.

Meguro also sees a generational element to the burial issue. "Most women who are opting out are middle-aged," Meguro said. "The eldest are still too bound by tradition and the youngest have not seriously considered this subject yet."

Years ago, Junko Matsubara, a popular writer on women's issues in Japan, founded a movement whose aim was to break free of male dominance. The group bought a burial plot in a suburb west of Tokyo, and members have since been buried there.

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