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Heir Adoptions

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April 18, 2011 by Valerie Elkins

Almost all Japanese families somewhere on their family tree you will find adoptions. It is necessary to understand that these are usually “heir adoptions” and are different than what we understand in the western world adoptions.

Samurai Warrior

Samurai Warrior

It was common practice for Japanese to adopt another adult male or older child/teen, if no male heirs were present in a family. Often the case is an arranged marriage between the head of household’s eldest daughter and the 2nd or 3rd son from another (possibly related) family. Upon their marriage, the groom would take the bride’s maiden name as his own and would become her father’s heir and now his name would be added to her family’s koseki. If they divorced (which could happen if no male heir was produced) his rights to her family’s estate would be returned, he would resume his own name and return to his birth family and again to be recorded under the head of his former household’s koseki.

Heir adoption was mandatory in cases of an elderly widow who had no children. If she did not have an heir and could not because of poverty, the local authorities would provide one for her or the estate would be forfeit. Often her estate would include the family butsudan, a family alter or shrine in a special cabinet where ancestor memorials are kept and where they worship. While having a butsudan is part of the Japanese Buddhist faith, 90% of the rural Japanese homes still contain them.

Butsudan

Japanese tend to practice Buddhist faith for burials and honoring ancestors like the obon festival [which is a 3 day celebration in the summer where everyone returns to their ancestral homes and cleans the family gravestone (ohaka) and enjoy a family reunion of sorts. Each region in Japan celebrates obon differently but it usually includes a special dance (bon odori) and often special foods. Obon is observed in areas of large Japanese communities outside of Japan like in Hawaii and California. Japanese typically practice Japanese Shinto religion for marriages and birth. Japanese find no difficulty in practicing both religions as it is usually more of a cultural practice than one of deep religious conviction and belief.]

Shinto Wedding

A father who had many sons might look to his acquaintances and extended family who were without heirs and for a sum of money they would adopt the child. Adoption was the easiest way to secure the child’s future. The child would then be raised up to not only be heir but be trained in his adopted father’s profession. The mourning period for adopted parents was the same as for birth parents.

These name changes and family changes that are recorded on the family’s koseki can quickly become confusing. Using a genealogy software program is really necessary to keep track of these changes and distinguish between direct lineage and adopted lineage. Adoptions were very common and frequent in all families and all classes.

Clients often ask me whose line should they follow, especially when the family name they inherited may be an “adopted” name. I usually recommend following the blood line. Unlike American adoption where it is usually secretive and difficult to find the birth parents, Japanese koseki records will record who the birth parents were and since they [the clients] are a direct decedent, they can have access to the records after proving their lineage.

If you are interested in reading more about heir adoptions you can read about it here.


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