- What Is a Family? Answers from Early Modern Japan ed. by Mary Elizabeth Berry and Marcia Yonemoto
What Is a Family? Answers from Early Modern Japan fills a glaring gap in the historiography of early modern Japan. Although the history of the family was given a significant impetus some decades ago by the encounter with anthropology, the field has remained little explored by historians of Japan, whose work has focused more on topics such as social status (mibunsei) and women’s history. Thus works devoted to kinship, adoption, or marriage are rare. Perhaps this has something to do with the concept of ie, without which the question of the family in Japan cannot be addressed. Ie is a protean term that refers to the domestic space and the kin and nonkin who reside in it as well as to the lineage that connects members to the ancestors, the family business and the capital handed down from generation to generation, and so on. Strongly linked to patriarchy and Confucian tradition, the ie has long been seen as the major obstacle to individualism and modernity and as the very symbol of the archaism that disappeared with the Meiji Restoration. Quite possibly because of this symbolic value, the institution has wrongly been considered self-evident, without a history or need for close examination.1
The ten essays that make up this volume provide brilliant evidence that the ie as a model of stem family succession has, on the contrary, not always existed and instead gradually gained a foothold in all strata of society, including populations on the margins, during the Edo period. The book also shows that this rather rigid system gave rise to a wide variety of practices aimed at circumventing it.
Mary Elizabeth Berry and Marcia Yonemoto, in their introduction, warn that they will “set aside ongoing debates over strict definitions and nomenclature to use the terms stem family and ie more or less interchangeably” (p. 5). Yet while their desire not to get bogged down in distracting abstract discussions is understandable, the essays show that the semantic field of the term ie largely exceeds that of the stem family. Some of the authors also use “house” and “household” as synonyms of ie. It would probably have been more effective to tackle the delicate task of definition head-on rather than to leave it out, especially since the book is intended for a wide audience. In fact, the book’s demonstration of the extent of the meaning of ie is one of its main contributions.
Following this introduction, which briefly sets out the main concepts of the volume, the essays are divided into two parts: part 1 (the first five essays) addresses the issue of the family on a macro scale, focusing on norms and practices within different social categories, while part 2 takes a micro approach, with examples drawn from family archives or in some cases from fictional literature. Diversity is the hallmark [End Page 175] of the book, as is evident in the sources used and the social strata studied. The brief descriptions that follow will place particular emphasis on the sources and aspects of family structure that each study highlights.
The first essay (“The Language and Contours of Familial Obligation in Fifteenth-and Sixteenth-Century Japan”), by David Spafford, sheds light on the formation and specificities of a warrior “house,” a group that encompassed dependent kin on the one hand and variously affiliated nonkin members playing “vital roles in managing a house’s assets and fighting its battles” (p. 25) on the other. Going back as far as the fourteenth century, Spafford traces how the originally contractual ties (involving some kind of reward in exchange for military service) uniting nonkin affiliates to the house head were, under the effect of normative discourse of continental origin, transformed over the generations into a feeling of moral obligation that placed those without blood ties on an equal footing...