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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?