Many aspects of Japanese culture are universally admired. Images of luxurious cuisine, karate, or Zen gardens often pop into a Westerner’s mind when thinking about the cultural riches of Japan. However, one Japanese tradition now being revealed to the world has many foreigners’ scratching their heads. Believe it or not, many Japanese adopt adult men into family businesses.
Sometimes, they even marry these adopted sons to a daughter in the family. And this practice isn’t under the radar at all. According to government statistics, an astonishing 98 percent of all adoptions in Japan are for men between the ages of 20-30.
A Few Famous Japanese Examples Of Adopting Adult Sons
Although this strange fact of Japanese life is only now becoming public knowledge, Western academia has known about this phenomenon for quite awhile. The American Journal of Comparative Law even put out a paper on the issue entitled “Sons and Lovers: Adoption in Japan.” News about this adoption custom is mainly spreading to the general public through a new Freakonomics report.
Dr. Vikas Mehorotra, who teaches finance at the University of Alberta, believes Japan adopts adult males mainly because family firms have always outperformed professionally run businesses in the home country. Dr. Vikas told Freakanomics,
If you compare the performance under different kinds of heirs, blood heirs versus adopted heirs, the superior performance of second-generation managed firms is pretty much entirely attributable to the adopted heir firms.
Japan is absolutely full of “family-run” businesses nowadays. Perhaps one of the most famous companies run by adopted sons is Suzuki. The current CEO of Suzuki, Osamu Suzuki, is actually the fourth adopted son to take the reigns of this automobile company.
Another big company to adopt sons is Matsui Securities, a large financial services firm. Even small businesses are known to practice adopting adult sons. The most famous example is the inn called Houshi Ryokan. This inn has been in the family for a whopping 46 generations, and it has used the practice of adopting adult males to pass on the business successfully throughout its 1,300-year history.
Cultural Precedent For Adopting Adult Sons
Of course, this cultural phenomenon didn’t just appear out of the blue. In fact, there’s a long history attached to the custom of adopting an adult male into the family. A few hundred years ago, Japan’s civil code determined how money was distributed once a person in the family died. As tradition dictates, the eldest male son gets most of the wealth. If a family has no biological sons, however, then the wealth and the business could go to an adopted son.
Many Japanese families in the past without sons would actively seek out sons to adopt in order to preserve the family’s wealth line. This tradition informs the practice of adopting a son into the business. Some Japanese actually try to both adopt a young man and marry him off to a daughter in the family. This truly keeps the wealth “in the family,” since the son becomes an adopted son-in-law.
While there is strong cultural and historical president for adopting adult males, the population woes of modern Japan make this practice even more attractive to businessmen. It’s just been reported that Japan has the most centenarians of any country in the industrialized world, and the country is well below replacement levels.
Statisticians say a country needs at least 2.1 births per woman to maintain a stable population. Japan currently has a fertility rate of only 1.4 births per woman. At the end of the day, it just makes good business sense for executives to adopt a son if they want to keep the wealth in the family.
There’s No End In Sight For This Japanese Adopting Custom
Most analysts believe this trend will only continue to increase in the future. Although a great deal has changed since the original civil code was adopted pre-World War II, most Japanese businessmen believe this is the best way to effectively pass wealth off in the family. Also, with the fact that more and more women are working longer hours and have no intention on having any children at all, most business leaders favor simply adopting an adult male they can trust to run the business well and enter into the family.
The Japanese are well-known for their conservatism, and with the growth in adoption/arranged marriage agencies, an increasingly aging population, as well as a low birth rate, this trend will probably remain in place for many years to come.