Extended family faces change

The traditional Japanese family system, the prop that has sustained this society from time immemorial, is being eroded. How deeply this is playing on the emotions of the people can be judged from the millions who switched on their television sets every Sunday night for the past couple of years to follow the events in a soap opera, "Fu Fu" (husband and wife). It is about an extended family in the process of disintegration.

The breakdown of the traditional family units is a matter which directly concerns all Japanese, the only difference being one of degree. Many of those who followed the show saw themselves in a similar predicament: the elderly afraid of a future of loneliness or the young and the newlyweds who want to lead independent lives.

The plot centered on a mother's fight to perpetuate the old system that required one grown-up son, usually the eldest, to remain with his parents in the ancestral home even after marriage.

The eldest son in the long-running drama found himself caught in a crossfire from two women he loves: his mother who demands he fulfill his obligations to remain in the family home and the young bride who wants her own home. The young man, aware that if he pleases one he offends the other, chooses to equivocate.

The strong-willed mother then decides to confront the bride. But this young woman, instead of withering as well-bred Japanese girls are supposed to do in such delicate circumstances, stands firm. Rarely have Japanese had such a chance to see both sides presented so candidly of a controversy that is causing many sleepless and tearful nights in countless households.

Many women with sons now marrying made great sacrifices during the poverty- stricken early postwar years to raise and educate their children, especially the sons, and now they would like to see some of that loyalty returned.

These mothers are asking whether one of their sons, on becoming an adult, should not still consider himself obligated to remain with his parents, who otherwise might have to spend their old age in loneliness. (Because husbands and wives spend most of their married lives apart, few couples find they have much of a base for mutually enjoying the retirement years.) Families with only female offspring sometimes attempt to overcome this difficulty by adopting the son-in-law (if he doesn't have his own family obligations, obviously).

The young, particularly the brides-to-be, argue that times have changed. In fact, the postwar Constitution, approved in 1947, decreed that the individual, not the family, was the basis for Japanese society.

A strange and contradictory side of the story is the stand of mothers when their daughters are involved. In the television drama, it is the bride's parents who wish to build a separate house for the young couple, as the mother does not want her daughter to undergo the misery that was perdition to her (until very recently the young bride was often considered no better than a kitchen slave by her in-laws).

It wasn't such a big issue before the war, perhaps because shorter life expectancy (50 for women compared with the present 77 years) usually never condemned the young bride to more than a few years under the thumb of her mother-in-law before she was promoted to a dominant role in the household.

In the end, the television drama mother loses, and the young couple go their own way.

Japan's economic progress has been a major factor in breaking up the traditional extended family. Young people leave the ancestral home much earlier to chase the good education and good jobs offered in the big cities. Greater affluence also creates a desire for independence, encouraged by the large number of youngsters now going on to tertiary education to broaden their mental horizons.

In addition, a shortage of residential land, and the tiny homes now being built as a result, make it increasingly difficult for two or three generations to live together under one roof, except in the old rural communities.

So today millions of aged Japanese face a future alone, a future for which they are ill-prepared, with few "old people's homes" to offer an alternative.

Small wonder that "Fu Fu" had a top audience rating throughout its long run -- even if, for many viewers, it brought as much apprehension as entertainment.

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