Reversing Patriarchy: A literary Examination of Adopted Husbands (Mukoyoshi) in Japan

Elizabeth Odachi Onogwu
Yokohama National University, Yokohama, Japan

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


Being a patrilineal society, some of the gender codes operating within the Japanese culture possess a set of self-perpetuating scheme that facilitates its hold on patriarchy. One of such schemes is the age-old tradition of adopting a full-grown man (omukosan) into a household with only female offspring as a husband to the eldest daughter in the household. He is expected to contribute towards sustaining the family lineage and consequently prevent the extinction of such a family’s name. The adopted husband then assumes the role of the headship of the house and enjoys all the privileges of a legal son. However, this sexist formulation works paradoxically both to elevate the adopted son to the status of leadership and perniciously portray him as a weakling who is perpetually obligated to his adopted family and thus occasionally treated with disdain. This paper deploys Futabatei Shimei`s novel An Adopted Husband (Sono Omokage) to ascertain the implications of this practice to the discourse of sexual inequality in Japan. It also probes the extent to which this patriarchal custom delivers the woman/bride a soft landing to valorize her status in the society and also circumvent the reach male hegemony.

Keywords: patrilineal, Futabatei Shimei, Sono Omokage, omukosan, Japan


As long as you have even a measure of rice, do not become an adopted husband.

Japanese proverb.

One of the core values that defined the Japanese outlook on life as well as culturally sketched their gender stance is the ie seido. The ie is literarily defined as a house, a home, a household, a family or a mere building. The ie, however, had implications beyond the “households” or “family”. Other things like preserving the honor of its name, paying allegiance to dead ancestors, upholding each ie’s unique mores and preventing the ie from being wiped out are factored into the concept of ie. For the Japanese, the ie was highly revered, and the task of continuing the ie was viewed as an onerous one, a vital task that must not fail. The most essential function of the ie in a nut shell was continuity.

The ie consisted essentially of all the immediate members of a particular house or main house as well as younger sons who have branched out to form a new one or the branch house, branch of a branch house, long dead and forgotten ancestors, recently dead folks and offspring yet to be born.

The affairs of the ie are managed by the head, and he is legally accountable for all members of the family. He by virtue of his position enjoys certain privileges like being allowed to take the first bath, being served first at meals, being waited upon, etc.

The head of the household wields so much power that he takes unilateral decisions most times. Moreover, his opinions on any matter are strictly adhered to. An expression of a contradiction or otherwise is viewed as a threat to the group harmony and well-being of the ie. The system thus produced much “frustration” in other members of the household as the head of the household with his limitless power was capable of various abuses on those beneath him.

As earlier noted, the prime motivation of the ie seido is continuity. It is also important that the continuity be based strictly on bloodlines. Thus, for the ie to be effectively perpetuated+ over the ages, a woman (usually selected by the head of the household) is married for the eldest son into the household to bear children that are considered as the next generation. As she is an outsider, the status of the incoming wife in an ie is usually very low, usually the lowest on the hierarchy. The living arrangement is such that, the eldest son (who is the head of the household in waiting) and his wife live together with his old parents.

The incoming wife is expected to learn the custom of her new ie and to subordinate her individual interests to those of the ie, putting every other person before herself. Hendrey opines that, an unsuitable wife could be returned to her home for “lack of general fitness, as well as possible barrenness. Such a resort could even be taken if an outsider fell ill in the middle life, and became unable to carry on with his or her expected duties. Again, the ie is seen to take precedence over its individual members”.

In the absence of sons, the usual option was to adopt as head a man (sometimes a close relative and at other times, a total stranger) who also became the husband of a daughter, such a head is called a Yoshi. This becomes necessary especially when a family possess a well-established business empire or a recognized name and has no male successor but has an unwed daughter of a suitable age. A man is chosen by her parents especially for his skills, health and good character to be her husband. He assumes the name of his wife’s family, her ancestors as well as the family tradition. Since he left his natal family to enter another, from the point of view of his adoptive family “he was an in-marrying member, in a newcomer’s position that in some ways resembled that of most young wives”…Full Text PDF

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