Succession planning in a more traditional Japanese family

Hitoshi’s family has agricultural roots. Much of his extended family still lives in rural communities and maintains land for growing rice, vegetables and fruit. While Hitoshi’s family no longer grows food for sale, the land remains part of the family reach.

Land is crucial to succession planning. It is so important in Hitoshi’s family that he signed a document saying that he would not request any land or proceedings upon the death of his parents. The entire estate including the home, land and savings would pass directly to the first child.

rice growing in the mountain's shadow

rice paddy in mid-August
Shikoku

The Past – Hitoshi’s father is made heir

When Hitoshi’s father married into the family, a respected friend acted as the family agent. He visited all of Hitoshi’s great uncles to solicit signatures to seal Hitoshi’s father’s future role as legitimate heir. Thankfully everyone agreed without protest.

The Present – Hitoshi gives up his right

When I found out about Hitoshi signing away claim to the family will, I was shocked and (embarrassingly) affronted. In my cultural experiences, estates were divided amongst family members. Anything else seemed unbelievable.

Hitoshi explained that keeping the family and ancestral land in one unit was vital. His father told him that if the land were divided, it would disappear within three generations. Ancestors would have nowhere to return to during Obon if the land and house were separated. The family name would also lose its value.

The house and land would stay as is until a future head of the household broke with tradition.

garden in Japan

garden plot
Nara Prefecture

Second Son Syndrome

Birth order is the reason why Hitoshi can not have access to family inheritance. Any children after the first are secondary in terms of succession planning. While this is likely not an encompassing truth for all families in Japan today, it is still followed in Hitoshi’s extended family.

During his childhood, Hitoshi received money at New Year’s and Boys’ Day. His older brother always received more, due to his status in the family.

koinobori flags for boys

carp banners for boys for Children’s Day
Ikebukuro, Tokyo

Hitoshi didn’t think it was fair but he didn’t have a choice. His experiences were not entirely destructive since he was duly spoiled by his grandparents.

Hitoshi also knew that he would have to leave his family home. His grandmother reminded him of this regularly. She also continually told him that he could not be buried in the family grave. He had no place in his home after adulthood and after death.

He was expected to marry a woman who was the oldest child of a family, take on her last name and become the heir to another house. Another option was to start a new family branch without changing his name, as some of his great uncles did.

After Hitoshi left, he could visit his family home but he would forever be a guest.

fish soup, Japan

traditional meal at seaside ryokan (traditional hotel)
Hiroshima prefecture

I joked with Hitoshi that he was a “throw away son”. He laughed with me but told me later that he hated this.

It was my way of trying to make light of a situation that seemed depressing and unfair. I didn’t know until then the impact of the imbalance he had grown up with.

Exceptions to the rule

While Hitoshi is not the official heir, he is in a unique position. He did not change his last name or marry a Japanese woman. He even left Japan! Finally, his child shares the last name of his parents.

In most circumstances, when a child leaves their family, he or she joins a new one. Any children become the grandchildren of the new home. They are not considered true grandchildren of the previous family. However, Hitoshi’s parents treat our child as their true grandchild.

Despite Hitoshi leaving his family home, he hasn’t become a forever guest. Whenever we return, he falls asleep within the first couple of hours in the family tatami room! If we stay overnight, his routine automatically fits back with the family standard including early rising, cleaning duties, and visiting with his parents at dinner.

Hitoshi has straddled the rules. While his position is noted symbolically and remembered from his upbringing, his family is more practical than strict.

swaying wheat in the sun

wheat field in Ibaraki prefecture

The value of tradition

The strangeness of Hitoshi’s family traditions around inheritance became normal once I understood the reasons. I am grateful for his family’s willingness to adapt to circumstances while upholding traditions.

Customs that preserve and honour the past create place, identity and purpose for those in the present. They also hold clues to past values and beliefs. That Hitoshi’s family traditions have been sustained through generations is commendable. My hope is that they will continue.

What are the traditions in your family around succession planning and inheritance? Is this topic taboo or kept secret?

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12 thoughts on “Succession planning in a more traditional Japanese family

  1. It is so interesting to read about other cultures. However unfair this may be, the Japanese seem not to mind and have upheld it even now. Kudos to them.

    • Hi Mia! Thanks much for your comment and apologies for taking a month to respond. I just checked out your blog and I’m really happy you connected with me. As for succession planning, what have you heard or experienced in India and now South Africa?

  2. This is very interesting ! It seems very odd to us, but I can understand the reason behind. I wonder why they have several children if they don’t want them to be part of the family ?

    • Thanks for your thoughts! Lots of kids meant more hands to share the labour. Lack of birth control was likely an issue. Another way of looking at it was helping the wider community since extra kids joined other families and helped continue their family name.

  3. You can see that these customs do make sense in order to keep the estate together, however it does seem terribly unfair on other children. My son’s wife’s family has one son and two daughters. They are also rice farmers, though as with Hitoshi’s family, they just keep their produce now for family and friends.
    I do like the idea that a family home is kept in the family, but in the UK these days children don’t often stay in the same town they were born in, let alone the same house. It is a shame, when it holds so many memories for them.
    I went to visit my childhood home last year which my parents were forced to sell for financial reasons. It was so wonderful visiting it again. I couldn’t have hoped for a better experience. The owner was the lady that had bought from my parents. She had brought up three children in the house and they also loved it at we did. Best of all, she had changed very little and loved all the original features of the house, which had been built by my Dad and Grandad. It even had the same green bath which was now over 50 years old. How unusual is that.

    • How interesting! What a delight that you could visit your childhood home. It must have been especially lovely since your dad and grandpa had built it and so little had changed. Old houses have character and heart and it pains me to see the being torn down.

      That’s a really good point about children moving away in the UK. Is it common for children to cycle back to keep communities going or are towns and villages dying out?

      Yes, I think the idea of family is different than how I grew up so being cut off does seem unfair. And going to a new family is often not a happy experience. Stories from Hitoshi about the suffering his grandmother experienced are fairly common. I feel there are parallels with the experiences of my ancestors on my dad’s side who moved to Canada from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s.

  4. This is not the practice in Taiwan as land and other material possessions is usually divided evenly among the boys (and in some cases the girls are included now as well). With regards to my husband’s family, they all own 1/4 of the land and it is under all of their names. However, none of them will ever farm the land.

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