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"DAWN" Newsletter of The DAWN CENTER

Japan's Family Registry System
International Marriages Face a Policy of Exclusion
Tamara Swenson

Family is everything. This statement sums up the view of life for many in Japan. The family is so central to Japanese society that official records are maintained on the basis of the family, not the individual.

When a couple marries, they usually begin a new family registry, known as a koseki to establish themselves as a family and issued an official resident certificate (juuminhyou). The family registry, kept by municipal governments throughout Japan, lists a variety of personal details about the family's life, including head of household, address, birthdates, and children. Passports and other documents are issued based on this registration.

What the family registry does not list is the name of any foreigner. In cases where one spouse is a foreigner, only the Japanese spouse's name appears on the family registry.

This exclusion has its roots in Article 39 of the Basic Resident Registry Law (juumin kihon daichou hou), which stipulates that the names of foreign nationals "may not be noted" on the official resident certificate.

This policy is becoming an issue of concern in Japanese society.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported that more than 36,000 "international marriages" were registered in 2000. This put the total number of marriages between Japanese and non- Japanese at more than 300,000. To many people, the exclusion appears to promote a policy of discrimination. This is not only a problem of discrimination against non-Japanese but also a form of discrimination against women. With more than 80 percent of international marriages made between Japanese men and non-Japanese women, this exclusion has effectively placed these women outside their families.

The incidents and types of discrimination that have arisen because of this policy are extensive. Of the non- Japanese spouses of Japanese citizens interviewed, more than 60 percent reported incidents related to the registration system.

A Chinese woman said that when her children first started school, she initially had difficulty getting information about their schoolwork as she was not listed on the registration document. "They wouldn't accept me as the 'real' mother because I wasn't listed [on the family registry]."

An American man, who remarried following his wife's death, said his family had the unique situation of having three different "registrations." Separate family registries for his daughter and second wife, and separate registration as an foreign resident for himself. "It was really strange that my daughter was listed as the head of household when she wasn't even in school."

A Korean woman, herself born in Japan, reported their landlord at first did not believe she and her husband were really married. "We had to go as far as showing our marriage certificate to prove we weren't 'living in sin.'"

Numerous other incidents were reported, though not all were unhappy with the lack of listing on the family's official resident certificate. One American woman reported some relief at not being listed, as it kept her from having to "deal with all the strange stuff that the city sends out."

Most, though, said they would prefer to be listed and recognized as members of their family. "Being listed would certainly make things easier," said one Filipina woman. "I just want to be seen as a regular mother, not like something strange from outer space."

Briefly, the family registration system began with the first national census in 1872 and then became the official system of registration. Following WWII, the family registration system was modified considerably and emerged in its current form. In 1967, Japan made a small step toward addressing the growing number of international marriages by allowing inclusion of foreign spouses who were the head of the household to be listed in the "remarks section" of the resident certificate. In March 2000, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) raised questions about Japan's exclusionary policy regarding resident registration during its consideration of Japan's compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. In March 2002, the Minister of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications (Somusho) gave permission to include any foreign spouse in the remarks section, provided the foreign spouse requested such listing.

This change reflects the rapidly increasing number of marriages registered each year between Japanese and non-Japanese. In 1970, less than 6,000 international marriages were registered (0.5%). In 2000, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (Kouseisho) reported that one in 22 marriages registered that year (4.5%) was an international marriage. In Osaka, the rate of international marriages has reached one in 12 (8.3%), and in Tokyo it is now one in 10 (10%). Obviously, the character of Japan's families is changing.

While the Japanese government is slowly addressing the issue, for many it is not moving fast enough.

Following the UNCERD request for information regarding the Basic Resident Registry Law, one organization took a lead in working to revise Article 39. Issho Kikaku, or Plan Together, began it's Juminhyo for Everyone Issho Project (JEIP) in 2001. In February 2002, it began distributing a "Juminhyo Kit" of documents to assist foreign residents in becoming listed in the remarks section.

Issho Kikaku has also held symposiums to spread awareness of the issue, and through its website and press releases, has worked to inform not only those in Japan about the exclusionary policy of Basic Resident Registry Law, but also those in other countries. Its goal is to get Article 39 changed to allow foreign spouses names to appear in the family registry itself, not just in the remarks.

Perhaps then, Japan will truly be able to justify the sentiment that "family is everything."

Issho Kikaku's website provides additional information, in Japanese and English, about the Basic Resident Registry Law, including its report to the UNCERD: <http://www.issho.org>

It lists a number of examples of discrimination suffered by foreigners married to Japanese because they are not listed on the registration system. Foreign spouses have been asked to leave their neighborhoods because neighbors viewed their lack of listing as indicating they were unqualified to live there. Municipal welfare offices have offered assistance to single-parent households even though there is a non-Japanese spouse, often the mother, in residence. Japanese spouses have used the lack of listing as "proof" that the foreign spouse has deserted the family in divorce proceedings. Children have become listed as the head of the household following the death of or desertion by the Japanese spouse. Male Japanese with non-Japanese spouses not listed in the family registry have received offers for match making from marriage introduction companies. All these and many other incidents can be traced to the exclusion of the foreign spouse from listing in the family registry.

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