Notes from Japan: Living with a Former Samurai Family

Morioka, Japan. The Ueda family, although not particularly representative of that which is ”˜typical,’ does represent a very old and important segment of Japanese society.   Like those brave men so graphically described in James Clavell’s Shogun, the Ueda’s ancestors were Samurai; knights of the ancient war lords of Nippon.

Living totally on the estate awarded their family in the sixteenth century over four hundred years ago, the Ueda’s continue to hold a prominent position in their community.   Although the Morioka Shogunate to which their family belonged has long since been destroyed, and the Samurai class itself outlawed, the House of Ueda continues to this day to personify a family of heritage, moderate wealth and local power.

Mr. Ueda is today head of his own company, a landholding firm with property scattered throughout Morioka, capital of lwate Province.   In addition to controlling his real estate business, Ueda-san serves as one of three city elders.   This high ranking position undoubtedly profits his business interests, but in return Mr. Ueda must donate much of his time and money to civic matters.   In addition to membership in the local Rotary Club, Ueda-san serves as chairperson to several different PTA organizations.

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An antique map of old Morioka.

Mr. Ueda does not manage the business alone, however.   Acting as banker and public relations officer, in addition to her duties as tutor, cook and maid, Mrs. Ueda plays the role once played by her mother, her mother’s mother, and all the other mothers before her.   Although modern conveniences have lightened her workload, her traditional sense of family responsibility has remained unaltered.

Rising each morning at six, Mrs. Ueda spends her day servicing her family’s children, house, business and outside interests.   Although both have varied functions, Mr. and Mrs. Ueda work well together to ensure the continuation of their household and the immediate well being of their children.

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Morioka Castle.

Unlike European family patterns, it was the husband who married into the House of Ueda; Mrs. Ueda belongs to it by birth.   As she had no brothers to continue the Ueda line, however, an outside male was found to carry on the name.

Thus, as most Japanese marriages have been traditionally, the union of Mr and Mrs. Ueda was brought about by arrangement and had little to do with romance. However strange, this marriage system may seem to Westerners, their union appears to be as strong if not stronger than many found in our own divorce plagued country.

The Ueda’s realize that few people today know or care who belongs to the once powerful and respected Samurai families; as the Samurai were forced to give up their swords during the Meiji Restoration, they and their families have been virtually anonymous for almost a century.

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Yet the pride of the Samurai class could not be revoked as easily as their uniforms.   The House of Ueda today is a fine example of such once noble yet now unknown heritage.   Although technically being an egalitarian society, the pride of this once-samurai family has seemingly separated them from the mainstream of today`s middle class life.

The Ueda’s appear to have, due to their heritage, moderate wealth and power, quietly yet persistently more equal than most here in Japan.

Note: The ”˜Ueda family’ is a pseudonym for the family I am living with as part of the Studies in Cross-cultural Education (SICE) Program of Earlham College here in Morioka, Iwate, Japan

Originally published in The Voice, College of Wooster, October 24, 1980.

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.