Things Japanese/Adoption

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Adoption. It is strange, but true, that you may often go into a Japanese family and find half-a-dozen persons calling each other parent and child, brother and sister, uncle and nephew, and yet being really either no blood-relations at all, or else relations in quite different degrees from those conventionally assumed. Galton's books could never have been written in Japan; for though genealogies are carefully kept, they mean nothing, at least from a scientific point of view,—so universal is the practice of adoption, from the top of society to the bottom. This it is which explains such apparent anomalies as a distinguished painter, potter, actor, or what not, almost always having a son distinguished in the same line:—he has simply adopted his best pupil. It also explains the fact of Japanese families not dying out.

So completely has adoption become part and parcel of the national life that Mr. Shigeno An-eki, the best Japanese authority on the subject, enumerates no less than ten different categories of adopted persons. Adoption is resorted to, not only to prevent the extinction of families and the consequent neglect of the spirits of the departed, but also in order to regulate the size of families. Thus, a man with too many children hands over one or more of them to some friend who has none. To adopt a person is also the simplest way to leave him money, it not being usual in Japan to nominate strangers as one's heirs. Formerly, too, it was sometimes a means of money-making, not to the adopted, but to the adopter. "It was customary"—so writes the authority whom we quote below—"for the sons of the court-nobles, when they reached the age of majority, to receive an income from the Government. It often happened that when an officer had a son who was, say, only two or three years old, he would adopt a lad who was about fifteen (the age of majority), and then apply for a grant of land or rice for him; after he had secured this, he would make his own son the yōshi [adopted son] of the newly adopted youth, and thus, when the former came of age, the officer was entitled to apply for another grant of land."—With this may be compared the plan often followed by business people at the present day. A merchant adopts his head clerk, in order to give him a personal interest in the firm. The clerk then adopts his patron's son, with the understanding that he himself is to retire in the latter's favour when the latter shall be of a suitable age. If the clerk has a son, then perhaps that son will be adopted by the patron's son. Thus a sort of alternate headship is kept up, the surname always remaining the same.

For some time after the late revolution, adoption was a favourite method of evading the conscription, as only-sons were exempted from serving. Fond parents, anxious to assist a favourite son to this exemption, would cause him to be adopted by some childless friend. After a few years, it might perhaps be possible to arrange for the lad's return to his former family and resumption of his original surname.

Until quite recently the sole way in which a foreigner could be naturalised was by getting a Japanese with a daughter to adopt him, and then marrying the daughter. This may sound like a joke, but it is not. It is a sober, legal fact, recognised as such by the various judicial and consular authorities, and acted on in several well-authenticated instances. Indeed, it is still the easiest method to be pursued by those desirous of naturalising themselves in this country.

We recommend, as a good occupation for a rainy day, the endeavour to trace out the real relationships (in our European sense of the word) of some of the reader's Japanese servants or friends. Unless we are much mistaken, this will prove to be a puzzle of the highest order of difficulty. (See also Article on Marriage.)

Book recommended. The Gakushikaiin, by Walter Dening, printed in Vol. XV. Part I. of the "Asiatic Transactions," p. 72 et seq.