In-laws as parents: adopting for marriage in Japan

shrine bell

big bell at Mount Tsukuba Shrine where we got married (Credit: O.S.)

When Hitoshi and I got engaged, I started thinking about changing my last name. I love Hitoshi’s family name. It includes some of my favorite natural objects. Taking it shows recognition of my Japanese connection. Best of all, it is his mother’s last name. When I told Hitoshi I was going to change my last name to his, he asked if he could change his to mine. He was only partly joking.

Succession planning is critical in Japan, especially in agricultural families. Once land and a home are acquired, it is vital to maintain both and expand as fortune arrives. The last name that represents the home and land is paramount. Hitoshi’s family is no different.

Mount Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture

Mount Tsukuba, rice fields and early morning mist in August

If the first child is a son, this boy takes over the family home in name and property. If more sons are born, they will leave the home and find another to join. If there are daughters, they must marry and become part of another family. The first boy keeps all while any others are released.

If there are no boys, there is a solution. The oldest girl inherits the home and land but needs a husband. There are some requirements. This husband cannot be the oldest son and must change his name to that of his wife-to-be.

Japan has an interesting twist on a man marrying into another family. A man cannot simply change his last name when registering marriage. In fact, his new parents-in-law must legally adopt him before his marriage! This officially ensures that the new son-in-law can take over the home, land, and, most importantly, name of the family to ensure continuity and preservation of achievements.

Hitoshi’s grandmother is the oldest of sisters only. Her father built her a home and gave her land to continue the family. A matchmaker found a suitable husband. The man she married took on the duties of the new head of the house.

Japanese warehouse

One of the warehouses on Hitoshi’s family property. The original family shrine is to the lower left of the wall.

Hitoshi’s father is the second child and second boy in his family. He moved to Tokyo and a new life before his parents called him back to marry the eldest daughter of a local, prominent farmer. A matchmaker arranged the union. His mother and father-in-law adopted Hitoshi’s father before his marriage. He changed his name and took on the duties of running the new family he joined upon the death of his mother-in-law/mother on paper.

Hitoshi is also the second child and second boy. It is only natural to him to join my family and take my last name. We did discuss this. There are only girls to pass on my birth name and only a handful of us alive. Hitoshi taking my last name would continue my family name. It would allow him to recognize his connection to somewhere other than Japan. I won’t say Canada because I don’t think there is a Canadian name. Rather, he would carry the Eastern European origin of my name. He would also terribly confuse anyone who met him or saw his name! Ultimately, we discarded this idea. I really wanted to change my name and was proud and happy to take Hitoshi’s.

sake ceremony at wedding

The shrine maiden pouring sake during our Shinto wedding ceremony. (Credit: K.Y.)

Have you heard of any other cultures where adopting to marry takes place? Did you or someone you know change a family name under unconventional circumstances?

6 thoughts on “In-laws as parents: adopting for marriage in Japan

  1. It was similar in Germany, and I guess whole Europe, not long ago. After WWII my grandfather decided to marry my grandmother. My grandmother was really popular because she was the onliest heir of a big farming ground. To marry her he had to change his name. He changed his name officially to the name of my grandmas family (no adoption). Interesting fact is, that officially (only on paper) wifes in Germany have behind their (new) surname the letters: Geb. (= Geboren = Born) and their former familyname. So let’s say my grandmother was a Meyer her name changed to: Meyer Geb. Meyer. So it was possible for my grandfather to marry her and to take the duties of the farm. So it was really, really similar.

    • Thanks for commenting! Very interesting. Can couples freely choose to take the name of the other or to keep their own after marriage? When I spent time in Finland, I thought it was pretty cool that it was a-okay for the man or the woman to take the last name of either.

      Did you see the article in the Japan Times about residents from Germany and “geb” on their identification cards?

    • Yes! I thought so, too. I was floored when Hitoshi told me about this in his family. I eventually saw the family register with the details of the adoption and was even more intrigued. I’ve got another post coming out next week on another aspect of succession planning and wills.

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