The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Society



Aspiring Toward More Open, Diverse Families:
The Risks of Regarding Blood Relations and DNA as Absolute

Yoshitaka Ikeoka
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

On July 17 this year, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that it would not revoke existing legal status of paternity in spite of new DNA tests that proved the lack of a blood relationship. Legal paternity is established in accordance with the stipulation of Article 772 of the Civil Code that “a child conceived by a wife during marriage shall be presumed to be the husband’s child,” but there was a dispute about how paternity should be decided if the latest DNA evidence scientifically proved that no blood relationship existed between father and child. The Supreme Court, however, emphasized the stability of the child’s legal status rather than the scientifically proven blood relationship. This point of issue about blood relations versus legal status is not limited to the questions raised by DNA testing. Recent developments in assisted reproductive technologies not only facilitate fertilization using sperm from a man other than the husband, but also, more recently, enable fertilization of the wife using an ovum from another woman, or a surrogate birth from the uterus of a woman other than the wife, so big questions are being raised about not only paternal relationships but also maternal relationships, previously self-evident by the fact of childbirth.

Such issues are apparently addressing over again the identity of the legal father or mother in response to recent developments in DNA analysis and assisted reproductive technologies. But behind these issues are changes in the family and the surrounding social circumstances.

Diversity is considered a feature of the modern family. At the same time, this means that families were uniform in the past. Going back to prewar Japan, we see families governed under the traditional uniform family system, ie. After the war, society changed and the Civil Code was amended, diminishing the influence of this old-time family system. The democratic family model that took its place was the so-called nuclear family composed of a married husband and wife and their unmarried children. During Japan’s period of rapid economic growth, people’s lives became richer and they were able to build such nuclear families, considered a symbol of the new age. The nuclear family model tacitly assumed a sexual division of labor, with the man working away from home and his wife staying home as a full-time housewife. The end of Japan’s baby boom period right after the war saw a sharp fall in the number of children per couple, and during the subsequent period of rapid economic growth the nuclear family, an urban salaried household with around two children and separate gender roles, became increasingly popular as the new uniform family model idealized by most Japanese. The diversification of the family is an expression symbolizing the character of the new family that has replaced the post-war uniform nuclear family.

So how should we view the Supreme Court’s judgment mentioned above in light of these modern family characteristics? It did not go so far as to overrule the stipulations of the existing Civil Code, but it did urge a legislative debate and was only passed by a narrow margin of three to two, so sooner or later we can expect to see more emphasis place on blood relations that have been scientifically proven by DNA testing. Putting importance on blood relations is also seen in cases of assisted reproductive technology. The only option for couples that wanted a child but could not produce one used to be adoption, but now assisted reproductive technology has made it possible for them to realize their dreams of having offspring at least partially blood-related to them. Could this tendency to emphasize blood relations because of the development of new science and technology have the effect of reinforcing standardization among contemporary families that are moving toward more diversity? Even though biological links are the basis of parent-child relationships, children are born in a variety of different circumstances. But the lives and welfare of these children should not be damaged or treated differently. The Civil Code has probably been used to rule on legal parent-child relationships in various complex forms without regarding blood relations as absolute.

The typical example of a non-biological parent-child relationship is when a child is adopted. Under the pre-war family system, adoption was widespread because of the need to continue the family business or family line and so people and society were tolerant toward adoption. But in the post-war model nuclear family where there was less need to continue the family business or family line, people placed more emphasis on biological parental ties rather than having to adopt. The annual number of child adoptions exceeded 40,000 immediately after the war, but nowadays the average is between 1,000 and 1,500 per year. This dramatic fall in the number of adoptions and the inversely proportional rise in the number of births by assisted reproductive technology since 1980s is probably an indicator of how post-war nuclear families place more importance on blood relations.

I would also like to point out the need for the modern family to change from a closed family to an open family. The epitome of the closed family was another thing that could be seen in the nuclear family during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth. Families in those days were placed in a private sphere relatively independent from the public sphere of politics, economics and so on. The problem of the nuclear family being closed can be seen in family issues such as, for example, a mother and child becoming overly attached or locked away together because the mother was a full-time housewife with sole responsibility for childrearing, which has even led to modern day child abuse. Because of this, the modern family needs to be open to its surrounding relatives, other families, the local community, and various related administrative bodies and specialists. Nowadays, due to women’s social advancement, it is not possible to raise a child only at home and families have no choice but to open up and cooperate with those around them. The term “realignment of the public and the private” refers to these circumstances.

But there is nothing modern or novel about open families. Perhaps we have too strong an image of the post-war family, leading to a deep-seated belief that biological parents should completely fulfill their responsibility by raising their own children. But parents have never, in any era, brought up their children unassisted. In traditional society, children were brought up in all parts of the community, not only by their immediate families and real parents but also other relatives or people from other families. And we know that according to Japanese folk customs, children often had foster parents other than their birth parents. The nakodo-oya (matchmaker parents) is a customary role that still remains in wedding ceremonies, but formerly a child could also have had a nazuke-oya (godparent) and eboshi-oya or kanetsuke-oya (kinds of ritual parents at ceremonies to celebrate entering adulthood). Of course I am not saying we should revive such traditional practices in the modern family. But what is needed is to make the family more open in line with modern social circumstances. Biological parents will still be fundamentally important, but perhaps viewing their role as absolute carries the risk of making the family narrower and closed.

My hope is that people will understand, even slightly, the actual families who are behind the attention-grabbing judicial ruling are families who are headed in the above direction.

Yoshitaka Ikeoka
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Ikeoka was born in Tokyo in 1952, graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University, majoring in sociology, and withdrew from the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University after finishing the required course work. From 1987 he served at Waseda University as Full-time Lecturer and then Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Human Sciences before taking up his current post.
Area of specialization is Family Sociology. Since 2012 he has been Chairperson of the Japanese Council on Family Relations.

His research publications include: A Selected Bibliography of Post-War Family Sociology [Sengo Kazoku Shakaigaku Bunken Senshu] (co-editor with Hideki Watanabe, 2008 and 2009, Nihon Tosho Center); “The Progress of Family Sociology in the Post-War Era and its Contemporary Phases [Sengo Kazoku Shakaigaku no Tenkai to Sono Gendateki Iso]” in Japanese Journal of Family Sociology 22(2) (2010); “The Missing Elderly Problem and Its Background [Koreisha Shozaifumei Mondai to Sono Haikei]” in Monthly Welfare 94(2) (2011).