"The Japanese family" is as diverse and elusive as "the American family," or "the Italian family," or "the Jewish family," or whatever stereotypical family we can imagine. The 127 million Japanese live in households as varied as can be found in America. For example, there is a growing number of single occupant households, e.g., students living away from home or transferees who have moved out of the family home because of temporary job changes. As in America, there are increasing numbers of households of only a married couple, typically a newlywed couple without children who do not want to live with either set of parents, or married seniors whose children have all left, leaving them to live on their own in their retirement years. Unlike in America, the incidence of unmarried couples living together is relatively small.
The two generation nuclear family consisting of the parents and their unmarried children has become the popular model of the modern family in Japan, as it was in America decades ago. Typically, with the low fertility rate in Japan, these households are relatively small with two, or only one, child living together with the parents.
Two generation single parent households, for example an unmarried, divorced or widowed mother and her children, or a widowed grandmother and her widowed daughter, are not common. Children born of unmarried women account for about one percent of all births, compared to about one-third of all births in the United States. This low rate of illegitimacy results from an aggressive use of contraceptives, mainly the condom, and different cultural attitudes about abortion.
What is still common in Japan, and rarely seen in the United States, are three, four and occasionally even five generation households. While many American students will enjoy having a widowed grandmother live with their family for a while, it is not the expected norm that it is in Japan. There is another difference. Whereas in America the grandmother typically "goes" to live with the family of one of her children, in Japan the expectation is that one of the children with family will live in the grandmother's house, i.e., in the natal home. This difference is significant. Living in the natal home with the grandparents stands as a strong symbol of the intergenerational continuity of the stem family line, continuing from the founding ancestor to the living members of the family to an infinite number of generations in the future.
Multiple generation households, for example the great-grandparents, the grandparents, the young parents, and the small children, reflect an important feature of the concept of "the Japanese family," even though its expression in actual living arrangements, i.e., the household, has declined in the post-war years. The figure represents an actual family in the Mizusawa area of Northeast Japan, the Satō family (a pseudonym). The Satōs are close friends of the author of this article, since the days when the now great-grandfather was the new young head of his family and household forty-five years ago. Today he proudly points out that his precocious 2 ½ year old great-grandson is being groomed to become the fourteenth generation head of this family. The family has lived at the current house site for several centuries, since the ancestors first came to this community generations ago. Of course the house itself has been rebuilt, and remodeled, many times in those years.