With the rise of the samurai class and the need to keep land holdings intact, inheritance tended toward inheritance by a single son during the centuries before the end of the Edo period. In the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu established a ‘code’ which did not specify that the eldest son would inherit. In the early part of the Edo period, it was often the son with the greatest merit who would inherit. Over time, however, and with the continuation of peace, inheritance by the eldest son, or primogeniture, became the norm and remains so today. Formal laws only governed the samurai class, in any case, but merchants and peasants also followed the legal model of the samurai.
In the Meiji period, the model of the samurai class was adopted for all citizens. One single individual inherited the headship of the family and the family property in its entirety. This was deemed to be authoritarian in nature by the Allied Occupation and equal inheritance of property was incorporated into the laws after 1945. The concept of family headship was eliminated. Male and female offspring were guaranteed equal inheritance.
This presented a problem for farm families and small shop owners: often the inheritance was not economically viable if equally divided. In addition, there is a continuing prejudice in favor of male offspring. The two factors led many families to make arrangements in favor of a single male offspring.
Inheritance laws have been the subject of public interest since the 1970s for a variety of reasons. The question first arose in the aftermath of the Lockheed Scandal. One of the main suspects, a descendant of Okubo Toshimichi (one of the three main leaders immediately after the Meiji Restoration), died amid reports that although he was immensely rich, his inheritors paid not a yen in tax. Much publicity was given to the legal devices used to avoid taxes. The question arose with intensity for the average person in the 1980s when real estate values went up rapidly. Suddenly, ordinary people were possessed of estates worth a million dollars or more. Death of one parent meant the surviving parent inherited 50% of the estate tax free, but the remaining 50% was inherited, usually equally by the children, and was subject to inheritance tax. For the children of such ordinary people, the prospect of inheritance became a heavy burden. On an estate including a house, the rate would be 70%. Families with an annual income of $50,000 or $60,000 might be facing a one time tax bill of $350,000. A bank loan could, of course, be sought, but if the second parent were to die within a short time, a second tax bill of an equal amount would be crushing. Few salarymen would have any alternative but to sell the home he grew up in.
Property values dropped a little in 1993, but inheritance and inheritance taxes are very much on the minds of the baby boom generation now in their late forties with aged parents.