Break from tradition: meet the Japanese widows who are cutting ties with their aged in-laws
An increasing number of Japanese people, especially women, are choosing to terminate legal relations with their in-laws after the death of their spouse.
With Japan’s greying society leaving more and more elderly people requiring nursing care, the decision to break ties is becoming more prevalent as surviving spouses look to break tradition and lift the burden of caring for aged in-laws.
A widowed writer in her 40s, who uses the pen name Mayumi Sugihara, took the difficult decision, ending ties with her husband’s parents one and a half years after her spouse’s death.
Sugihara and her husband, who was more than 10 years her senior, had been married for 17 years and lived with his parents, a situation that was never a happy one for Sugihara.
When her chronically ill husband died, conflict developed between Sugihara and her parents-in-law over funeral arrangements and the inheritance of his assets. Eventually, the situation deteriorated to the point that she was forced out of her home.
“After the shock of my husband’s death, and then being forced out of my home, I felt like my livelihood was being threatened,” Sugihara recalled.
A friend told her that it is possible to sever ties with her husband’s family, recommending that she do it to find peace, and closure. After completing the process, Sugihara said the dark clouds lifted, leaving her feeling freed from the torment she was enduring.
“I finally cut off my ties with that family,” Sugihara said. “Now that they are entirely unrelated to me, even under the family registration system, the hatred I was feeling has receded. I can now look forward.”
The system is set up so the termination of familial relations with in-laws does not require their consent and once the process is completed they are not even informed. In addition, the inheritance of assets from the spouse’s estate remains possible.
Applications for the procedure have been on the increase over the past decade, in fiscal 2015 the total number of cases was 2,783, up from 1,772 in fiscal 2005.
Cases are most often brought by women who are reluctant to be burdened with the care of their aged in-laws, or would prefer not to be buried alongside them.
There is no legal requirement for surviving spouses to provide nursing care to parents-in-law, making the cutting of ties for that reason a more symbolic decision. But often women do it because it provides ease of mind and an escape from what is a traditional Japanese family responsibility.
Family counsellor Harumi Takakusagi received some 30 inquiries about the termination of in-law relations last year, up sharply from the one or two per year she had seen in the past, possibly because the procedure has come to be more widely known through the internet.
Most inquiries came from women in their 40s and 50s who live with, or close to, their parents-in-law and want to avoid being lumped with their nursing care, according to Takakusagi.
“Aged people take it for granted that they will be cared for by their daughters in law, but often they struggle because they want to live their own lives after the death of husbands,” she said.
Under the prewar civil code, a woman who loses her husband was allowed to end her relationship with his family only if she remarried.
The rule was changed under the postwar civil code to give women freedom and choice. Article 730 of the revised code states, “Lineal relatives by blood and relatives who live together shall help one another”, but it does not legislate a duty to do so.
Fumio Tokotani, professor of family law at Osaka University, said people are going through the process of cutting ties perhaps because they misunderstand their legal obligations, or lack of.
“The values of postwar generations are changing, meaning ties to in-laws are seen in a different light these days,” Tokotani said.