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Top>Research>Family-Centered Modern Society


Yuji Miyamaru

Yuji Miyamaru [Profile]

Education course

Family-Centered Modern Society

Yuji Miyamaru
Associate Professor of Faculty of Law, Chuo University

Society in which 'family is important'

I am a meddling teacher. I often ask students what is their purpose for coming to university and studying. I receive answers such as 'for my future,' 'I want to contribute to Japan and international society,' and 'I don't have a particular goal.' However, the most common answer is 'for my family.' More specifically, I receive answers such as 'someday, I want to give something back to my parents, who have paid for my education' and 'I want to become a person who can care for and protect my family in the future.' The majority of students answer that they want to contribute to their family, including the family they may have in the future. This is truly impressive. Chuo University has lived up to its motto of creating a 'family feeling.'

Some cynics may say that students simply selected an answer that sounds good when they were obliged to answer a question from their instructor. Others may lecture that university students should be studying harder if they are going to give such an idealistic answer. In any case, it is a fact that the majority of university students consider 'for my family' to be a good answer, even if they are expressing ideals rather than reality.

This phenomenon is not limited to students. When examining adult society as a whole, the majority of people consider family to be their ultimate goal in life. The idea that a person's reason for living and a person's happiness depends on the family is taken for granted, and the idea is too natural to spark any debate. Even for fathers who fell victim to an age of excessive working hours and failed to be known as family-men (as was common several dozen years ago), or for people who must deal with unhappy situations within their households, no significant differences can be seen among people regarding the concept of family as an ideal.

The village society which is unique to Japan may have given rise to the view that a person's heart remains with their family even when they appear to be participating in the society as a whole. Family-centered orientation and devotion to the household are trends which are not unique to Japan; rather, these trends can be seen throughout the world. However, when examining history, it can be seen that the concept of being family-centered was once not such a universal value.

The important aspects of life as seen in Dickens's Christmas Carol

A great number of values which are now common throughout the world can be traced back to nineteenth-century Britain. During the Victorian era, Britain served as the leader of modern nations and extended its dominion throughout the world under the concept of imperialism. Britain of that period exerts a strong cultural influence on today's world. Japan ended its policy of national seclusion at a time when the British Empire was at its peak, and Japan took many value standards from Britain. Indeed, since Britain was Japan's first large-scale contact with the Western world, Japan sometimes exceed other countries in its implementation of British values as universal concepts.

A Christmas Carol, a novel written by Charles Dickens, was published in 1843. It was a bestselling novel in Britain at that time. The novel continues to be read today and has been adapted many times for television and film, and I am sure that many people are familiar with the story. In the novel, Mr. Scrooge is a man who thinks only of money. His extreme parsimony has led to economic success, but he is a frail money-monger who has no consideration for others. He is hated by the townsfolk and is avoided even by dogs.

Scrooge's heart is changed in a single night thanks to a visit by three ghosts. A significant reason for his change of heart is what he witnesses at the household of Bob Cratchit, an employee at Scrooge's accounting office. Scrooge is shown the household by one of the spirits. Cratchit has a wife and many children, and while he lives on a tight budget due to the wages that Scrooge pays every week, he leads a happy life that is full of laughter even while struggling to make ends meet. Tim, Cratchit's youngest child, has a disability in his leg. However, the family joins together to help Tim, and they live a happy life despite the hardships. Scrooge's personal philosophy is that 'it would be fine for the poor to starve to death in order to decrease the surplus population.' However, Scrooge begins to worry about Tim's health. The glimpse inside the Cratchit household was an impetus for Scrooge, and for the reader, to consider the true meaning of happiness.

The rise of family-centred values

In addition to the laissez-faire philosophy that is represented by Scrooge, this story also shows another value which emerged as a mainstream value in that period. That value is the concept of being family-centered. Although a large number of novels had been written until this period, there were actually almost no novels which portrayed the household as the final bastion of the heart. A number of loving families had appeared in novels, but families had not been portrayed as the fundamental goal or support of a person's life, nor had they been portrayed as a universal value. In fact, this trend of considering one's own family as the reason for one's own existence was advanced by the rising middle class. This fact is also made clear by examining the rapid increase during the Victorian era of paintings which depicted images of middle-class families.

Originally, upper-class families did not possess the same kind of family-centered environment that existed among the middle class. For example, relationships between husbands and wives were not as close as among the middle class, including the aspects of love and chastity. Children were raised by nurses instead of their parents, were sent to boarding schools in their early childhood, and were expected to be independent. Even within the household, emphasis was placed on children's roles as individuals with a focus on the future and children were expected to function in society as individuals. As for the relationships between parents and children, priority was given to children's roles as successors to the family. Furthermore, even as the middle class began to spread a different set of values, the upper class made no attempt to change their existing values. Although the British Royal Household gathered as a family when appearing before the media, this was an exception among upper-class households. Furthermore, this exceptional behavior of the Royal Household began during the age of Queen Victoria, when the monarchy had adopted values similar to the middle class.

Conversely, in the case of the working class, men lived in a man's world and women lived in a woman's world, with roles strictly based on gender. As a result, the values of the working class were the farthest from the family-centered concept of the middle class. To a great extent, this is true even today.

As the middle class began to participate in society, they advanced the concept of the nuclear family and dispensed with social and regional connections. This created closer family relationships. A characteristic of the advancement of family-centered values was the rapid increase of the lower-middle class in society. Until recently, the lower-middle class had belonged to the working class, but they were able to raise their social position and enter a class that was one level higher. This lower-middle class found employment in offices rather than in physical labor, and it is this class that is best represented by Bob Cratchit. In order to prove to society and themselves that they were no longer affiliated with the working class, the most important thing for the lower-middle class was to incorporate into their lifestyle the morals and values of the middle class, and to embody such values. Once the lower-middle class achieved increased financial security and possessed free time, they came to view the family environment as playing an increasingly vital role in their lives. Eventually, in regard to all aspects of life, the lower-middle class acquired the principle that the ultimate goal in life was to protect one's family and to feel happy when with one's family.

Although Dickens's class was greatly raised due to his outstanding success, he was originally from a lower-middle class household. This personal background is strongly related to his portrayal of Cratchit's household as an epitome of human happiness.

Merits and demerits of family-centred values

At school, we learn that the family is the smallest unit of society. Is this really true? Originally, the individual is the smallest unit of society. Furthermore, during social activities, we actually take part in a variety of groups other than our family. Within a variety of lifestyles, what group do we prioritize and what group is the final home for our heart? It may be thought that family is the universal answer to these questions, overcoming differences of time periods and countries. However, this is not true. The entries in our school textbooks which state that 'the family is the smallest unit of society' are just one school of teaching, and they are the result of social studies and education being influenced by middle class values which have spread throughout the world. It may be possible to see this same influence in the motto of Chuo University mentioned above, a motto which was added a great number of years after the founding of the university.

Family-centered values offer a great number of merits. One merit is that such values provide a foundation for many people. Regardless of conditions such as social class and financial stability, the existence of a family allows a person to look forward to returning to their household and enables a person to work hard for the good of that family. A vast number of people have chosen to apply this way of thinking to their lives, and this way of thinking has saved the lives of many people.

Conversely, when discussing the demerits of family-centered values, it cannot be denied that such values have promoted excessive egoism. When family becomes the ultimate goal, anyone other than family becomes a mean to achieve that goal. Family-centered values sometimes made us forget that this world offers many roles other than the purpose and responsibility that comes from being a member of a family.

Another danger presented by family-centered values is exposed when a person is unable to imagine any happiness other than the happiness derived from family. At that point, the person may disregard the happiness of other people who do not lead a family-centered existence, and the person may refuse to acknowledge their own happiness as an individual. Due to the rapid and major changes taking place in the composition of Japanese society, there will be an increase of the number of unwed people and people without families in the future. Within such a society, there may be great risk in promoting only family-centered values as a model for living.

Finally, although it may be difficult to imagine this in an age where family-centered values have become the norm, a person's delight and happiness is not necessarily found only in possessing a household like that of the Cratchit family. For example, it is possible to feel fulfilled through interaction with people other than family members. It is also possible to gain fulfillment by testing how much one is capable of contributing to a vast world that is not limited to family, and people may directly acquire happiness from being relied upon to make such contributions. It can be said that happiness different from a family-centered environment was found in upper-class values such as maintaining a family lineage together with the assets which are the foundation of that family, as well as in the role of leading society through social intercourse. Happiness was also found in interactions between fellow employees among the working class.

'Family is the most comfortable and natural environment for a person.'-Although this way of thinking may not have originated in today's world, recognition should be given to the fact that our age features family-centered values which have advanced this way of thinking as a single trend. In particular, regarding the university students which are my primary focus of interest, I hope that students will not only think about caring for their families but will also consider what roles they will fulfill in society. I also hope that they will consider what contributions they can make to the world outside of their family. Furthermore, I hope that students will think about what kind of learning and knowledge is necessary for them to achieve their goals as individuals.

Click here for Corridor of Knowledge: Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Juvenile Law, an educational program which was supervised by the author of this article.New window

Yuji Miyamaru
Associate Professor Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: British Literature and Culture
Born in 1971. Graduated Keio University, Faculty of Letters in 1995. Started teaching at Chuo University as an Assistant Professor from 2005. Specializes in British Literature and Culture, with especial focus on novels, biographies and autobiographies of nineteenth-century Britain.