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  • Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender and the State 1600-2000, and: Gender and Human Rights Politics in Japan
  • Kaye Broadbent (bio)
Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender and the State 1600–2000 by Harald Fuess. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, 226 pp., $45.00 hardcover.
Gender and Human Rights Politics in Japan by Jennifer Chan-Tiberghien. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, 220 pp., $45.00 hardcover.

Gender and human rights, and in particular, how women have not had access to the same rights as men are broad themes consistent in both Harald Fuess's Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender and the State 1600–2000 and Jennifer Chan-Tiberghien's Gender and Human Rights Politics in Japan.

Comments on Japan's divorce rate date back to 1639 with some regions in nineteenth-century Japan recording divorce rates similar to those of [End Page 244] the United States in the 1980s. Overall, divorce in Japan declined from the nineteenth century until the 1990s. Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender and the State 1600–2000 examines the social function and meaning of divorce in Japan asking the question, why was divorce initially high, and why did divorce subsequently become less frequent? The author, Harald Fuess, analyzes a range of source materials including legal procedures and laws, demographic and survey data, and social and ethnographic commentary. Chapters focus on issues such as early marriage and divorce practices and influences on Japanese divorce law. Fuess concludes that the high divorce rates in the Meiji period (1868–1912) and in the Japan of the 1990s support the argument that high divorce rates indicate progress towards greater gender equality. Yet the 1990s also differ in that it highlights "the image of the unsuspecting man as the surprised victim of divorce" (165).

This book documents changes from 1600 until the present, but the main focus is 1868 when two hundred years of military rule was replaced by the Imperial system and the subsequent post-World War II period. Indications are that there have been changes in official attitudes towards divorce, but broad continuities exist in the gendering of access to and the material impact of divorce. Until 1868, the military attempted to impose codes of conduct drawn from the ideals and behaviors of the samurai (warrior elites) while they took a laissez faire attitude to divorce, as long as marital conflicts remained within the respective social classes. Marriage and divorce were not as important as containing social mobility.

The restoration of the Emperor heading a civilian government that focused on modernization required a different form of social control. Fuess argues that until 1940, the Imperial state focused on strengthening marriage as a social institution by redefining marriage and divorce and by proposing new requirements for the registration of marriage and divorce. The new civil code (1898) required that all divorces pass through a court of law. The new legislation, which contributed to the decline in divorce in the period 1898–1940, disadvantaged women in major ways: it was silent on property division, alimony, and child custody, and it restricted women's right to divorce an adulterous husband while unconditionally permitting a woman's adultery as grounds for divorce (this inequity was removed in 1948).

Further legislative change with an impact on divorce was created by the 1948 New Civil Code. Consensual divorce, which accounted for 90 percent of divorces remained, but a new set of grounds for divorce included "grave reasons preventing the continuation of marriage" and led to a 1952 Supreme Court ruling where "a spouse at fault could not obtain a divorce over the objections of the other spouse." Fuess argues that the ruling created a divorce system, which was overturned in 1987 that "essentially guaranteed lifetime marriage to any legally innocent spouse. This form [End Page 245] of marriage guarantee probably reinforced the pronounced sexual division of labor among Japan's new salaried urban middle class" (150).

The discussion of trends and changes in the legal codes and legal practice in Fuess's book is informative. However, more analysis on how the ruling elites widened the range of social control and how the ideological development was associated with modernization would have added depth. With gender...


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pp. 244-248
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