Male Adoption in Japan

Here’s something that might come as a big surprise to most people: Japan has one of the highest adoption rates in the world! Every year, around 80,000 people are adopted – most not being children, however.

Name is everything in Japan. Blood is really thicker than water here, but blood lines only extend so far. Have you ever wondered how some of the most established names in Japan can/could continue for so long (in some instances hundreds of years)?

The answer lies in the mostly underground practice of adult adoption. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s big business in Japan’s hyper status-oriented society.

As you might know already, having the right family name can open many doors in Japan. Traditionally, the first-born son gets all the inheritance and usually becomes the head of the family business. What is a family without a viable heir to their family honour supposed to do to continue the family legacy? More often than not, adoption of a male “heir” is the answer. In Japan, still being a very male-dominated society, only a male heir is acceptable to continue the business for many prominent families. So, if they have a daughter, and/or an unsuitable male heir, they turn to adoption instead.

Male Adoption in Japan

This centuries-old practice (first records date back to the 12th century) was developed as a mechanism for families to extend their family name, estate and ancestry without an unwieldy reliance on blood lines. Especially common during the Tokugawa era, many Samurai would adopt a son to create a strong, fixed position in Society through becoming the head of a prominent business or official position.

What does the ancient Tokugawa Era have to do with our modern world? Well, believe it or not, Japan has one of the highest adoption rates in the World, with one major difference to other countries, however. Out of around 81,000 legal adoptions per year, most consist of adult adoptions to continue a patrilineal lineage for the family name and/or business. According to Wikipedia, over 90% of these aforementioned 81,000 were adult males in their 20s and 30s. The most common form is called Yoshi-engumi, in which a suitable male is married to the family’s daughter. It’s actually very similar to an arranged marriage (called Omiai).

Another form of adoption occurs between same-sex couples. Marrying someone of the same gender is still illegal (and somewhat frowned upon) in most cities in Japan; so to bypass the legal restrictions, some couples have turned to adoption, which is generally initiated by the older person in the relationship. With same-sex marriages becoming more accepted in recent years, however, this trend might soon go the way of the dinosaurs, which in this case is not entirely a bad thing.

Once shunned by the masses, social opinion on adult adoption has shifted over the years, going from being seen as rather embarrassing to becoming more and more sought after in recent times. An entire industry of coupling available men and women with powerful families looking for Heirs, has sprung up in recent times, and has completely changed people’s perception of this practice.
It’s vaguely reminiscent of shows such as the Bachelorette / the Bachelor. The notable difference being the available and sought-after prize is the family (Name) rather than just the person. Kind of like Bachelorette meets The Apprentice!

Male Adoption Japan 2

So how does it work?
If a family has an abundance of “extra” sons, they make them available for adoption (usually through an agency) in the hopes of finding a family in need of an Heir.
When a person is adopted into a family, s/he is expected to take on the full responsibilities of caring for the family and its ancestry, as well as the family business, in exchange for a promise of some kind of inheritance, gifts of many millions of yen for their biological family, and the subsequent jump in status.
It is not permitted to adopt more than one person, and that person has to be at least 15 years old. In most cases, it is usually the wife’s family who adopts the new husband, before making him head of the company.

Some notable companies that have engaged in this practice include:

  • Suzuki
  • Toyota
  • Canon
  • Kikkoman
  • Matsui Securities

and The Hoshi Hotel, which has continued its family legacy this way for 1,300 years.

Running a company, however, is not easy, and the necessary traits are not always passed down through the bloodline. A recent study, according to the Economist, suggests that companies which adopted Heirs, outperformed their “pure bloodline” counterparts.

So, ready to go out and search for a rich woman to marry because you think it’s a cushy life? Think again, if the adopted son doesn’t perform up to expectations, he can be disinherited from the family, and a new (more suitable) successor will be chosen. This happens quite rarely, however.

For more information about this fascinating part of Japanese Life, check out the following link:

Freakonomics