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Satoshi Sakata

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Historical Origin of the Japanese Ie System

Satoshi Sakata
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Medieval Japanese History

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What Is Ie?

What do I mean when I say ie? The Japanese word, ie, often refers to the home or the family, as it is used casually in daily conversations among today's young people like the Chuo University students I see every day. It can be used in sentences like "my ie (home) is a three-bedroom condo," or "my ie (family) consists of four people." But that's not what I'm talking about here. The ie I'm talking about is that uniquely Japanese word, which older Japanese may be more familiar with. It refers to the Japanese household system that has continued to define the nature of Japanese society since the Edo period (i.e., the early 17th century through mid-19th century) through the early modern to post-war economic boom period.

More than ten years into the 21st century, this household system has faded from view. Practically all that's left are faint traces seen only on signs posted in wedding halls bearing the family names of the bride and groom or inscriptions on tombstones that carry the family names of the dead. The ie system has been a hot topic of study across various academic fields, from sociology to ethnology and beyond. If I had to point out one particular theme running through all these studies, it would have to be how this system has been perpetuated over generations.

The ie is a social framework designed to continue over generations, under which an inherent family homestead, family name, and business are passed on from father to the eldest son along a paternal line that can stretch for generations.

While this concept may not ring a bell with Japan's forty-somethings or those even younger, the ie system was a familiar institution throughout Japan up until only a few decades ago. It was something that governed Japanese people's conscience, behavior, and values for years.

The Birth of the Ie System

I would like to focus on how this enduring ie system, which by design passes property, name, and business in a direct line of descendants, originally came to be.

We've all heard the plausible discussions of some conservative politicians, critics and media pundits who insist that the ie system is a "tradition" that Japanese can be proud of, dating back to ancient times.

The sentiment often forms the backdrop to the argument that various social issues regarding families emerged at once due to the recent collapse of the ie-like social order and decrease in momentum of valuing family, or the argument that assistance for elderly or needy persons should be provided by family members, or by relatives, rather than by the state. This message generally hits home with the public-especially the elderly. But is this argument backed by firm academic proof?

According to recent studies of Chinese and Korean history, distinctive lifestyles, social systems, and customs that are regarded today as Japanese, Chinese, or Korean traditions flowered across East Asia between the late 15th century and early 17th century, which correspond to Japan's Sengoku period and early Edo period. If this is true, most of what we believe to be quintessential Japanese traditions only date back some 400 to 500 years. The historical origin of the ie system, which is considered as the most typical of these "traditions," can hardly date back before the Sengoku period.

In light of this research I have focused on identifying when the ie system was originally formed. In brief I have found that:

  1. Farmers did not start using family names (e.g., myoji and tsumyo) until the latter half of the 14th century. Use of family names among farmers did not become widespread until the 16th century. The property inherited by an eldest son remained virtually intact as a single family homestead in the 16th century as a result of the shift from divided to single inheritance.
  2. The ie system-where a family homestead, name and business are passed on from one generation to another-therefore took root at the peasant level in the mid-16th century when renowned warlords like Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin were fighting against one another.

Single Inheritance Paves the Way to the Family Homestead

If we take a closer look into these findings, we see that there is a clear distinction between the divided and the single inheritance of family property. The general practice under Japan's post-war Civil Code is to divide property among heirs. In this way, the wife, as well as all the children, has the right to inherit property left by the head of the household.

Under the ie system, on the other hand, single inheritance is the general rule. The eldest son inherits the majority of his father's assets, i.e., family property, and uses them to continue running the family business. This means that the origin of the family homestead comes from the same root as the practice of single inheritance.

Up until the Kamakura period (ca. 1185 - 1333), divided inheritance was the norm as it is today. Back then the female members of a family had the right to inherit property. Both father and mother's assets were divided among all the children, including daughters. The concept of passing a single family property down a line of descendants did not exist. The property (mainly land) was allocated separately to individual children through a practice of divided inheritance.

The practice of single inheritance, in which the eldest son alone is given the majority of his deceased parent's property, became increasingly common among samurai clans after the late 13th century. This change was essentially intended to prevent further division of a clan's territory into smaller sections. Although this shift supposedly occurred later among farmers than it did among the samurai clans, it's clear that the practice of passing on all the family assets to a single heir was in place by the 16th century.

Difference between Clan and Family Names

Now let's look at the family name, another key component of the ie system. First of all, I want to make it clear that sei and myoji, which are both used to mean family name today, are different from a historical point of view. Sei refers to clan names used by the ancient nobility such as the Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara, and Tachibana. A clan is a group of noble people united by common descent. When the samurai class rose to prominence during the Heian period (794 - 1185), the samurai began adopting names for their clans. Eventually the peasantry began assuming the clan names as well. While these clan names were used less and less after the Muromachi period (1338 - 1573), they never completely disappeared. They were used by samurais on important occasions and in documents to lend themselves an air of authority.

Myoji, on the other hand, refers to the personal names (mainly geographical names) adopted by medieval samurais, which were passed down from generation to generation and eventually became the family name. This type of family name was commonly used by farmers during the Sengoku period (late 15th century - late 16th century). This meant that by the Edo period (1603 - 1868) a large percentage of farmers had a family name. While Japanese high school history textbooks say that farmers were prohibited from using a family name and carrying a sword, they were actually only forbidden from using a family name on documents they submitted to a samurai or using the name in the presence of a samurai.

Trade Names as Family Names

Still there were farmers who did not have any family name, and those that did were not allowed to openly use their family name in the presence of a samurai. Against this backdrop, some farmers started using a type of family name that was distinct from myoji. They began using trade names instead.

While many of us associate trade names with merchants, farmers also had trade names. This type of names is referred to as tsumyo in Japanese. Tsumyo is a given name that is handed down from a father to his eldest son. The act of taking a father's name by the eldest son is called shumei. In many cases tsumyo (given names), such as Tojiro and Kanemon, became so distinctive to a particular family that they became the family name.

The Japanese government after the Meiji Restoration banned the shumei practice as the need for identifying individuals for tax and draft purposes arose in the process of building a modern nation state. The shumei practice lives on today only in the traditional performing arts, such as kabuki, where stage names are bequeathed from father to son. The practice, however, was quite common among the populace during the Edo period. Use of tsumyo can also be found among farmers during the Sengoku period.

Pre-ie, Ie, and Post-ie Japan

Toward the end of the Sengoku period hallmarks of the ie system, like family property and family names, were being adopted by the peasantry who made up the overwhelming majority of the Japanese population. This essentially means that the ie system can in no way be traced back beyond the Kamakura period, despite claims by some that the ie system is as ancient as Japan itself. If we were to call a society based on the ie system an "ie society," we would have to say that the Nara, Heian, and Kamakura periods were pretty much pre-ie societies.

Come to think of it, family, marriage, and male-female relationships today in the 21st century are quite similar to what they were in the pre-ie days. I hope looking back will give us a glimpse of where our post-ie society may lead us.

Satoshi Sakata
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Medieval Japanese History
Born in Tokyo in 1953, Professor Satoshi Sakata graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University in 1977. He earned a master's degree from the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University in 1979. After withdrawal from doctoral program of the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University in 1985, he earned a Ph.D. in history from the University.
He worked as a teacher at Kanagawa Prefectural Isehara High School, a full-time lecturer and assistant professor on the Faculty of Business and Commerce, Hakodate University , and assistant professor on the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University before assuming his current position in 2001.
His current research focuses on identifying the formation process of social institutions such as the family and village that form the foundation of traditional Japanese society. His research also looks into historical changes in the relationships between people's names and society. His major publications include two academic books, The Formation of Family and Village Society [Ie to Mura Shakai no Seiritsu] (Koshi Shoin, 2011), and The Name, Family, and Village in Medieval Japan [Nihon Chusei no Uji, ie, Mura] (Azekura Shobo, 1997) as well as other publications, written for a general audience, including The History of Family and Given Names [Myoji to Namae no Rekishi] (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2006) and War and Peace of a Village [Mura no Senso to Heiwa] (Medieval Japan [Nihon no Chusei] Volume 12, Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2002).