Leave it to the Freakonomics guys to report on one of the more fascinating, and theologically helpful, phenomena going on in the modern world in their recent radio show, “The Church of Scionology“, in which they tackle the subject of adult male adoption in Japan. The New Testament, as we all know, is rife with the imagery of adoption, the idea being that Christians are children adopted by God, with all the assurance and love (and rights) that entails. Childhood adoption is an adult making a self-sacrificial decision to raise a helpless infant with no reference whatsoever to how that infant may turn out. Complete one-way love!

The Japanese, apparently, turn all of that on its head. “Adult adoption,” at least in this case, is an adult making a fully selfish decision to preserve his own interests by overlooking love in order to give authority to those who have already proven themselves likely to continue being successful. Ironically, this may be a PERFECT example of the way most people think God loves us…

What happens when the heir to a family business isn’t up to the job? Not great things, apparently. But the Japanese have a solution: adult adoption. Rather than hand the firm to a less-than-worthy blood heir, Japanese families often adopt an adult to take over.

America and Japan have the highest rates of adoption in the world – with one big difference. While the vast majority of adoptees in the U.S. are children, they account for just 2% of adoptions in Japan. The other 98% are males around 25 to 30. Mehrotra believes this is the key to one of Japan’s unique differences. Across the developed world, family firms under-perform professionally-run businesses. But in Japan, it’s the opposite. Japan’s strongest companies are led by scions, many of them adopted. “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.

Mehrotra explains that adopting a scion is similar to a hostile takeover. Blood heirs are under the constant pressure of knowing that if they under-perform, they’ll be replaced.

Unlike China or India, where preference for baby boys is extreme to the point of gendercide, the Japanese have an adage that rejoices in the birth of a girl:

You can’t choose your sons, but you can choose your sons-in-law.