cartoon-Japan

Adoption is something that is very difficult to do in an era of declining birth rates and abortion. Many couples in developed countries who have failed to conceive look abroad — to China or Russia or Central America — for a child to adopt, and then it may take several years and a considerable amount of money to accomplish.

Surprisingly, in view of its very low birth rate and aversion to immigration, Japan has one of the highest adoption rates in the world. But the reason is even more surprising: more than 90 per cent of the 81,000 people adopted last year were Japanese adults — men in their 20s and 30s.

Huh? You can imagine a lonely middle-aged couple wanting to adopt a daughter who might console them in their old age (and Japan has the oldest society on earth), but adopting a grown-up son seems a less certain bet. Well, you have probably guessed by now that this has something to do with the famous Japanese family business. The Economist explains:

Japan’s sliding birth rate has created many one-child families, and although daughters can manage the company back-office, in Japan its outward face must still be male, says Chieko Date. She is one of several marriage consultants who help match ambitious young men and the marriageable daughters of business families.

If the meetings go well, the men agree to drop their own surname and are adopted by their new bride’s family, becoming both the head of the clan and of its business. Ms Date’s consultancy claims to have brokered 600 of these marriages, known in Japan as mukoyoshi (literally “son-in-law adoption”). Most of her clients are families who own small and medium-sized businesses. She says the union cannot be just a business transaction. If the couples do not like each other, both marriage and business will fail.

The authors of a forthcoming paper on the practice in the Journal of Financial Economics say they have not come across it anywhere else in the world. However, they say it explains why Japanese family businesses remain competitive through the generations when companies controlled by heirs often do not. And the Japanese can be very hard-nosed about keeping the family firm going:

If they feel that nature has shortchanged them, some families will even bypass a biological son for an adopted one—a fairly common practice, says Mr Mehrotra. In theory, this gives family businesses access to the same-sized talent pool as a professionally managed firm would have, he writes, and may even induce a sturdier work ethic among biological children.

Presumably everyone in the family benefits, at least financially, from that.

The research in question dates back to 2000 so things might have changed somewhat since then. There’s an international push for Japan to get more women into business leadership roles, and from the point of view of talent there is no reason the family business could not pass into the hands of daughter. But culture is another thing and male leadership seems to retain its hold. Partly it’s about the family name, the business brand, although this does not seem to be an insuperable obstacle to a daughter taking charge: for the same reason that a husband would change his name, she can keep hers.

While son-in-law adoption gives an incentive for men to marry — and stay married — which is no bad thing, change in the direction of female leadership could help make the Japanese business more family friendly. That’s assuming that women executives would break with the culture of hob-nobbing with business peers after work in the evenings — and allowing their underlings to work suicidal amounts of overtime.

Ultimately cultural practices stand or fall on whether they allow the family — and therefore individuals — to flourish, and that does not seem to be the case in Japan.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet