Japan’s Archaic Civil Code and the Plight of the Unregistered

Ninomiya Shūhei [Profile]

[2018.02.22] Read in: 日本語 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية |

Japan’s koseki family registry system and anachronistic laws governing familial relations have produced the problem of mukosekisha—unregistered citizens unable to take part in society and exercise their basic rights. The author makes the case for fundamental reform, arguing that Japan’s system is out of step with global norms and its own Constitution.

There are times in life when a person needs to submit fundamental documentary proof of his or her identity, birthdate, citizenship, and parentage—for example, for purposes of securing a passport or a marriage license or claiming an inheritance. In the West, each individual is issued a certificate of birth that can be used for such purposes. In Japan, this function is assigned to the family registry, or koseki. Those who through no fault of their own find themselves with no koseki registration are in essence denied their rights as Japanese citizens. In the following, I examine this social issue and its roots in Japan’s outdated Civil Code.

Japan’s Archaic Family Registry System

Under the koseki system, local governments are required to maintain registries for each Japanese household in their jurisdiction, and each such household is required to report births, deaths, marriages, and other changes in family composition.

Koseki registration is limited to Japanese citizens. (Marriages to non-Japanese spouses are recorded as marginal notations but not officially registered.) This means that anyone with such a registration can easily prove that he or she is of Japanese parentage and therefore entitled to all the rights of a Japanese citizen. Koseki registration is not, strictly speaking, a requirement for citizenship; anyone born in Japan to either a Japanese mother or a Japanese father may claim Japanese nationality. That said, establishing proof of parentage can be exceedingly difficult if one is not registered on a parent’s koseki.

The upshot is that in Japan, without proof of koseki registration (either an official copy of the document or an official extract)—one cannot obtain a passport so as to travel abroad, be legally married, or claim one’s legal rights as an heir. In essence, one is deprived of one’s rights as a citizen.

The unit of registration in this system is not the individual but the nuclear family, with each family registered under a single surname. Under Japanese law, the husband and wife must take the same surname, and in 96% of cases, they take the husband’s. Thus, in actual practice, the koseki is the husband’s, with the wife and children added on as household members. This system perpetuates a narrow and outdated concept of the family, and it has contributed greatly to the problem of non-registration.

Birth of a Social Issue

The problem of the mukosekisha received little attention until a few years ago. In 2014, the unregistered began to intrude on the public consciousness thanks to a series of stories in the news media, particularly the daily Asahi Shimbun and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.). At that time, unregistered persons were denied such social services as enrollment in National Health Insurance, along with the right to obtain a driver’s license, a passport, and so forth.

In July 2014, the Ministry of Justice launched a survey to gauge the number and circumstances of unregistered persons in Japan. Such individuals are almost by definition difficult to identify, but as of October 10, 2017, the ministry had tallied 1,495. (The actual number is believed to be many times that.) Subsequently, 780 of those identified were able to obtain registration, but the other 715 remained in limbo. Almost half of those (49.2%) were children under school age.

The Ministry of Justice and some local authorities have taken some steps to mitigate the isolation of these mukosekisha by making it possible for them to register with their municipality as residents, to receive national health insurance coverage, neonatal checkups, immunizations, and childcare subsidies, and to enroll in daycare and public school. However, given the circumstances that typically attend non-registration (see below), we can assume that the majority remain unaware of their rights or unable to take advantage of them.

Falling Through the Cracks

How and why do people fall through the cracks of Japan’s family registration system?

When a child is born in Japan, the parents are required to inform the municipal government through submission of a shussei todoke, notification of birth. The information in that document—including the child’s gender and birthdate and basic information on the parents—is used to register the child on the family registry of the legal father (except in the rare instances in which the mother holds the koseki).

In most situations, this registration proceeds without a hitch. In Japan, prenatal and neonatal care is carefully monitored. Pregnant women are issued a health record book with a schedule for prenatal and neonatal examinations. The healthcare personnel responsible for delivering and examining the infant also assist the parents in registering their child. Even so, some parents clearly fail to do so.

In some instances, the problem can be attributed to social isolation or neglect. A July 8, 2014, front-page story in the Asahi Shimbun publicized the case of a child who was kept hidden at home, out of school, for 17 years.

In the majority of cases, however, the problem relates to the koseki system and the Civil Code’s outdated provisions regarding divorce and paternity. According to the Justice Ministry, 75.1% of the cases it has examined fall into this category.

  • [2018.02.22]

Professor, Ritsumeikan University; specialist in family law. Born in 1951 in Yokohama. Graduated and received his PhD in law from Osaka University. Author of Kazoku hō (Family Law ), Kazoku to hō—Kojinka to tayōka no naka de (Law and the Family—In the Context of Growing Individualism and Diversity), and other works.

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