Posted by debito on July 24th, 2008
Hi Blog. We’ve had a couple of good comments recently from a couple of mailing lists I belong to, concerning the Family Registry System (koseki) in Japan (not to mention the Juuminhyou Registry Certificate, equally problematic; more on that here). It affects a lot of people adversely, not just NJ, so let’s devote a blog entry to the issue. We’re considering making the Koseki System a lobbying issue at forming NGO FRANCA, especially since South Korea, with its similar hojeok registry system, abolished it this year.
Here are some of the problems as far as NJ are concerned:
COMMENT FROM OSAKA J AT THE COMMUNITY:
This may be common knowledge, but it wasn’t for me (admittedly due to my own failure to properly research the issues), the lesson being that you should never take anything for granted — not even something as simple as your child’s last name.
My wife and I have separate last names; she kept her maiden name when we married. Yesterday, we took the Notification of Birth form for our recently-born daughter to the city hall to file it. Naturally assuming that our daughter would take on my last name, we filled it out with my last name and her chosen name. Fifteen minutes later, we were waved over to be told that because my wife’s maiden name is still on her koseki — and as we all know, my name is just a footnote on her koseki — we cannot use my last name, and our daughter would have my wife’s last name. The only way around this is to have my wife file for a change of name at court, whereupon her name will officially be changed to mine, and thus our daughter will be able to take on my last name.
While it’s a quick fix for the time being, the horrendous legal and familial limitations put on foreigners by the koseki system finally really hit home. I’ve never felt my existence was negated quite so much as the instant where we were informed of this rule. I guess I’m just offering this anecdote as a warning to people considering marrying/having children because this is what you will face if you opt to go with different last names, and as an example of why the koseki system needs a serious overhaul, particularly with respect to foreigners.
To see an example of this (i.e. a real koseki after an international marriage in Japan, where the NJ is not listed as a “spouse”), go to:
COMMENT FROM KGD AT FRANCA:
Isn’t it astounding that the koseki system, developed from temple registries by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s to locate and persecute Christians, should continue to exist in 21st century Japan? Many countries have central registries of marriages, births and deaths. Japan alone developed the intrinsically discriminatory koseki system, which it forced on Taiwan and Korea to maintain colonial control.
But, just like secret Christians, NJ keep coming up with ways to bend the system. If a man named Lennon marries a Japanese woman named Ono and has a child named Sean, the child can be registered in the koseki as Ono Lennon Sean. Japan will issue a passport in the name of Shoonu Rennon Ono, but there is a provision for listing a second spelling (“betsumei heiki” is the magic phrase) along the lines of Sean Lennon Ono. The Ministry of Foreign affairs has regulations on listing of a second spelling, but whether the regulations are enforced to the letter, whether you can assign your chosen name, or whether you can’t get a second spelling at all depends on the clerk assigned to you. At least in a big city, if the clerk is uncooperative, take back your paperwork, come back the next day and try again.
Most foreign nations will register the above child according to the desires of their citizen, for example as Sean Lennon, and issue a passport in that name.
A foreign parent could of course forget about Japanese nationality for their child and try to register the child under a foreign name in the foreign parent’s immigration registry, but think long and hard about that one. This might lead to a denial of family social benefits for which NJ also pay taxes, and possibly make life harder for the child. Under current law, the child can wait until his/her 22d birthday to choose between Japanese nationality and the foreign parent’s nationality, and can keep both in the meantime. But a baby needs a koseki in order to get a Japanese passport.
If you are looking for allies against the koseki system, try posting on a board for Japanese professional women. They are often angry that, because the koseki can only have one family name, they have to drop the maiden name under which they have their M.D., M.B.A., Olympic medal, etc. in order to be recognized as married. They don’t mind using their husband’s name in private society, but in professional society they may want to continue using their maiden name. No can do in Japan. The alternative, for the husband to take the wife’s name, happens when the wife’s family is rich but has no son, but is not appealing to many financially independent men.
It pays to take the long view on discrimination in Japan: another of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s 17th century creations, the government monopoly on tobacco and salt, didn’t die until 1985.
And also how the Koseki System puts NJ at a serious disadvantage when it comes to divorce:
MULTINATIONAL MARRIAGES COME OFF WORST
What makes this situation especially difficult for international, and especially intercontinental, divorces is that foreign partners have extreme difficulty being granted custody of children in Japan. In a March 31, 2006 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, lawyer Jeremy D. Morely, of the International Family Law Office in New York, stated:
“Children are not returned from Japan, period, and it is a situation that happens a lot with children of international marriages with kids who are over in Japan. They do not get returned. Usually, the parent who has kept a child is Japanese, and under the Japanese legal system they have a family registration system whereby every Japanese family has their own registration with a local ward office. And the name of registration system is the koseki system. So every Japanese person has their koseki, and a child is listed on the appropriate koseki. Once a child is listed on the family register, the child belongs to that family. Foreigners don’t have a family register and so there is no way for them to actually have a child registered as belonging to them in Japan. There is an international treaty called the Hague Convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction, and Japan is the only G7 country that is not a party to the Hague Convention.”
Also see HANDBOOK FOR NEWCOMERS, MIGRANTS AND IMMIGRANTS TO JAPAN pp. 256-270
Arudou Debito in Sapporo