Mind the ‘geb’: Little word is a big problem for Japan’s German residents


Name-related headaches are part and parcel of life as a foreigner in Japan. Fitting foreign names into the katakana syllabary, which is used for non-Japanese words, can leave your moniker almost unrecognizable. Some Japanese are not sure whether to use a foreign person’s first or last name. Many a foreign professional in the Japanese workplace is called by their first name like a child, while the surrounding Japanese are addressed by their last name plus the honorific san, as is customary in the business world.

Annoying and frustrating as such things can be, however, imagine if your name had been taken and rendered into something so farcical that you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This is the situation now facing some German nationals since the introduction of the zairyū (residence) card for foreigners in 2012. A group of German women shared their story with The Japan Times.

Take Gabriele Kubo, for example. Since she runs a family business with her Japanese husband, she uses his family name in daily life. However, her “official” name on her German passport also includes her middle name and maiden name, listing her as “Gabriele Theresia Wagner-Kubo.” That’s all well and good, but her Japanese zairyū card contains this mouthful: “Wagner Kubo Geb Wagner Gabriele Theresia.”

The problem stems from the way German passports record the former name of someone who has chosen to take their partner’s last name upon marriage.

“It’s the little word ‘geb’ that is at the root of all this. It is short for geborene. In English it would translate as ‘born as,’ or ‘maiden name’ in the case of a woman,” Kubo explains. “On the German passport, this information is entered in the same field as the name. Any German official knows what it means and would never imagine it is part of a person’s real name! However, due to the place where it appears on the passport, Japanese Immigration officials insist it must be recorded on our zairyū cards.”

When Susanne Kobayashi got married, she also chose to use her husband’s surname.

“Until the introduction of the zairyū card, we foreigners registered at our local city office and obtained an alien registration card. When it came to the way my name was recorded, I just had to explain the meaning of the ‘geb’ line. It was no problem for the city office clerk to write my name correctly on my alien registration card.”

Everything changed with the introduction of the new system in July 2012.

“When I went to Immigration to get my zairyū card, I couldn’t understand why suddenly I had this weird name with ‘geb’ in it!” says Kobayashi, shaking her head at the memory. “I tried to explain that it was just noting my maiden name in the passport, but the officials insisted that they had to record the name exactly as it appeared in the passport. They said they were only following orders.”

After reaching out to fellow German women, Kobayashi realized that others shared her feelings of frustration and anger at this situation, and an action group came together.

“There are currently around 10 of us and we call our group Weg Mit Geb, which means ‘get rid of the geb,’ ” Kobayashi explains with a wry smile.

Fellow group member Anika Ogusu thought she had almost got away without having the “geb” on her zairyū card.

“It looked like the guy at Immigration was going to write my name the way I had filled it out on the application form. Then he looked at my passport and took it away to show someone. I ended up with ‘geb,’ too.”

The women have heard rumors that some of their compatriots have been fortunate enough to persuade Immigration to leave “geb” off their new cards.

“It could be that there are still places in Japan where they are willing to be flexible. Perhaps in more provincial areas without a lot of Germans, so the officials take things on a case-by-case basis,” Kubo muses.

According to Immigration, it is precisely this case-by-case approach that they want to crack down on.

“The zairyū card was introduced to streamline the way information on all foreigners is recorded and to make the process smoother and more convenient for everyone,” says Takahiro Suzuki, deputy manager of the Residence Services Office at the Immigration Bureau’s Entry and Status Division. Instead of the piecemeal approach that sometimes resulted when the process was handled at local city offices, clear-cut guidelines have been issued to Immigration departments.

“A passport is the most accurate form of identification, and so this has been adopted as the official record of an individual’s name,” says Suzuki.

The women have pleaded their case with staff at various levels in the Japanese Immigration hierarchy, but so far their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

“If only they could issue a memo that explains the mean of ‘geb’ on German passports and authorize their staff to leave it off the zairyū card, surely the problem could be solved quite simply,” reasons Kubo. “However, we were told that they couldn’t make any exceptions.”

Having exhausted all avenues with Immigration, the women are now pinning their hopes on some kind of compromise with the German side.

“The German Embassy is aware of the difficulties caused by new Japanese regulations for transcribing names,” says Robert von Rimscha, the embassy´s minister for cultural affairs and public relations. “We have been in steady contact with relevant Japanese authorities to find a practical solution.”

He also point outs that these problems are not gender-specific, since German law does not distinguish between husbands and wives if they adopt each other’s name after marriage. “Both women and men would then face the same potential problem when it comes to Japanese documents and the use of ‘geb.’ ”

Kubo, however, says that Weg Mit Geb’s members are not holding their breath.

“We’ve been trying to get someone to take this issue seriously for over a year and yet there has seemingly been no progress so far.”

An online petition has now been set up on the Change.org site.

The women point out that having this unwanted appellation forced on them by the zairyū cards has caused inconvenience in various aspects of their daily lives.

“I tried to use my German credit card to pay for something here in Japan and they asked for some ID. Then I was refused because the name on the credit card didn’t match that of my zairyū card,” notes Diana Kawamata.

Kobayashi experienced a similar situation when she tried to take out a contract for a mobile phone and pay with her German credit card.

“Since I had no card that matched the name on my zairyū card, they wouldn’t accept it,” she explains. “I ended up having to ask my husband to pay with his credit card. As an adult woman, I felt belittled.”

Since the zairyū card is the new gold standard for foreigners’ ID in Japan, everything else has to follow suit. Kubo’s driving license also now has the unwanted “geb,” for example.

“And because that is how my name is officially registered in the system, they call out the whole thing whenever I go to the city office, too,” she says. “We feel caught between two inflexible systems and we are the ones suffering this inconvenience on a daily basis. We just want to get rid of the ‘geb.’ ”

Weg Mit Geb’s Facebook page: bit.ly/wegmitgeb (in German). E-mail: aktion.wegmitgeb@gmail.com (German or English). To sign the petition: bit.ly/mindthegeb (German and English). Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • hudsonstewart

    Expecting immigration officials to make name changes based on the pleas of immigrants is a bit much. It opens the system to manipulation by con artists of other nationalities who would rather not have their name recorded accurately. I think the burden of correcting the situation lies on the German side, since it appears that their conventions for passport names are not standard. Hopefully the German embassy can work with Immigration to correct the problem.

    • itoshima2012

      I can only agree. I had a look at her passport picture and trying to act like a Japanese immigration officer it would be obvious that the “geb” is part of her name. Being of German ancestry and although Italian national but German mother tongue it is clear to me what the “Geb.” stands for but it is also obvious to me that a Japanese official would recognize it as parrt of her name. I honestly think that it needs to be changed in the German passport and there’s absolutely nothing the Japanese can do.

    • Artemis

      Which is exactly what the petition is about ;)

  • anoninjapan

    The problem is the anal need to register with ID cards in the same way that a Hanko is the prefer “currency” rather than a signature.

    It just points to a country that does not trust anyone and has set up totally inflexible rules to prevent transgressions. Since telling the truth has no value in the culture only doing ones duty. So much so that not even the legal side in courts place any weight on truth as there is no perjury law!

    If one has a society where no one is trusted, just like those of the “old communist” days or worse, where everyone is watched every has “papers” etc…any deviation is never tolerated.

    Japan is ostensibly a de-facto communistic dictatorship police state the way it runs its society and the administration if it.

    • itoshima2012

      “Japan is a de-facto communist dictatorship police state”, do you know what you’re talking about? Or is this just a troll comment…..

      • anoninjapan

        Or is this a troll…geeessss…what an intelligent riposte!! Can you lift heavy weights too??!!

      • CptNerd

        Yep, troll.

      • anoninjapan

        Ahh..i see you’re also in the “i like opinions that agree with mine, but anything else is a troll” camp.

        Gesss…i assume you can lift heavy weights too by that reply!!

      • itoshima2012

        how about learning some English grammar first, then try to make the grey cells work and after you have a good grasp of certain facts start to write…..

      • anoninjapan

        Aaahh…yet again nothing of value except a lame attempt at syntax comments. I suppose having an opinion and trying to show everyone you can lift heavy weights is a bit too much for you.

        Well, to be expected from one with little to offer. How’s your PB bench press going??

    • iago

      The article quite clearly states what the problem is, and it isn’t that.

    • Jim Jimson

      The Japanese government might be oppressive or authoritarian, but communist? No. Since the end of WWII, the country has been the capitalist America’s favorite client state in Asia. If you want to hurl epithets, “fascist” would at least make sense from a historical perspective; means of social control like chonaikai remain more of less intact from the fascist wartime period.

      • anoninjapan

        I think you’re missing the point of my “communistic” tag.

        Have you ever experienced living or being in a communistic regime? This has nothing to do with the capitalistic monetary/financial side at all. It is about the controlling nature and constant surveillance that the communist regimes enforces to its citizens. Having parents and relatives that did for many decades and seeing/hearing the effects of living in a communist state, you’ll understand that money and open financial markets has nothing to do with it at all.

      • Jim Jimson

        I get that you hate communism. My point is that intensive surveillance also takes place in fascist and liberal societies, so a more historically grounded epithet would make more sense.

      • anoninjapan

        I never said anything about hating communism. It is merely a statement of fact of how ex-soviet block countries were run under the communist regime. That’s all.
        Having to surrender ones passport to the local police and report to the said station everyday to check in, is hardly “surveillance”. Seems you’re missing the point again.

  • iago

    The problem stems from the way German passports record the former name of someone who has chosen to take their partner’s last name upon marriage.

    Generally it’s better to tackle a problem at it’s source, rather than blame the symptom, though I suspect the relevant German authorities will also be somewhat strict on the matter of official ID…

    However, other resources on the internet seem to suggest it is not too onerous to establish a legal alias and then either have the alias annotated on the back of the resident card (some reports) or have an alternative ID such as health insurance or a Juki-net card issued bearing the legal alias.

    • Artemis

      This is more a workaround than a real solution to the problem. Your name is still that monstorous name with the “geb”. You still habe to register everything with that name, sign with that name and live with the meaning of “geb” in japanese being “burp”.

      • iago

        From what I’ve read, you can use the registered alias for contracts, bank accounts, credit cards, work matters, etc. and basically have if as the name your are known by in day to day business.

        Additionally, one can register a seal to stand in place of a signature in most matters.

        Of course it is only a workaround, but at least it is perhaps a way to greatly reduce the inconvenience of the problem.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Only in Japan. It does not matter how absurd the Rules are, the fact that they are the Rules is sufficient. Thinking is not allowed.

    • Gordon Graham

      …and Germany

      • otisdelevator

        At least in Germany there is *some* negotiation over some of the rules.

      • Gordon Graham

        Wunderbar!!!…problem solved

      • KevKev

        I have yet to find this.

  • Artemis

    Well, given that “geb” pronounced in japanese means “burp”, I don’t think there is anything to be thankful about …

  • ジェレミー

    I think this whole problem stems from the German-issued passports. As a passport is an international document, Germany should issue it without using words that are only known or have meaning in Germany. If her maiden name is Wagner, list her last name using the international standard of hyphenating the birthname and her married name: “Gabriele Theresia Wagner-Kubo” then that would avoid any complications due to different naming conventions in other countries.

  • KevKev

    This isn’t abnormal. The US typically has AKA or maiden on identification as well…

  • Artemis

    It is THE card. The zairyu card is the card you generally have to have with you as a foreigner. It is your legal identification card. You need it to enter any kind of contract, to open a bank account and to get health insurance. And in every case you have to use that name, sign with that name … It appears on every document.
    And normally paying in japan with our credit card is not problem at all, that is, if your name on it matches the zairyu card :/

    • Gordon Graham

      And a passport is THE official ID worldwide…As for paying by credit card, in 27 years in Japan I’ve never been asked to show any identification when using one, I merely swipe the card and enter the PIN, same as anywhere else. How is it you can shop online with a card?

      • Artemis

        Well, might depend on the shop. And if you take a look at the petition, it is actually about changing the GERMAN passport, not the Japanese zairyu card, although a little flexibility here wouldn’t harm as well. I see the fault in both systems. The German passport is not clear
        enough for non-German speakers. Personally I don’t think that German
        words such as “geb” should be used in internationally used passport. But
        also the Japanese system being to lazy to adjust their system here and
        there to the individual nationalities. When I filed my marriage in
        Germany, the lady in the office had a drawer full of papers informing
        the staff about, for example, that the japanese koseki tohon does not
        clearly state that a person is single by writing “single” somewhere. You only know
        it because no spouse is listed on the paper. Now imagine the German
        authorities would have ignored such stuff, because they wanted to have
        the system uniformed and declined my marriage by stating, that they
        can’t be 100% sure that my fiance is really single.

      • Gordon Graham

        Seems to me the simple uniform system is preferable to a drawer full of papers…As for changing the German passport, otisdelevator informs us that the German authorities are flexible, so it appears the ladies are in luck.

    • milk

      I know what it is, I had one too.

      My point was and still is that it’s just a card, and documents are just documents. I wouldn’t care what name I have to use, it’s not like people would all start calling me geb just because of whatever documents. All the documents in the world could give me a stupid name, I don’t care.

  • Artemis

    No, unfortunately not. This is the standard design of the passport and the petition is actually focusing on this problem ;)

  • Gordon Graham

    …as is written on the German passport

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    I have a question for the German Passport holders out there: Is the “geb” encoded in the MRZ (machine readable zone) area? That’s the area at the bottom of the front page in an OCR (optical character recognition) friendly font that looks like this:


    Anyway, I suspect that (need confirmation) that due to the length — a maximum of 39 characters — the “geb” isn’t included here. Immigration should put the name that is in the MRZ, not the name that is in the human-readable area, on ID cards. When your passport is swiped at airport/seaport CIQ, this is the name that is recorded in the databases.

    As a comparison, Japanese passports sometimes have multiple names in parentheses (maiden and other names for overseas use); these additional names are not in the MRZ of JP passports and thus immigration computers don’t see these names when they’re swiped and/or their IC chips are scanned.

    A practical solution, if immigration insists on using the “passport” name, is to only use the name as it is encoded in the MRZ so that extra name information (like that on a German or Japanese passport) isn’t included.

    • Artemis

      The “geb” is actually not encoded in the MRZ and this was one of the ways to explain this situation to the immigration office. But as they don’t scan the passport (I don’t know why), but type the name into the system manually, they said they can’t use the MRZ.

      • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

        That’s a shame. It’s pretty easy for a human to read it manually. It’s not a secret code (documented in ICAO doc 9303):

        For the first line:

        * The first letter is “P” (for passport).* The second letter is type of passport, or “<” if not applicable.* The next three letters are the issuing country.* After that, the rest is the name. The general format is


        The name is entirely upper case. Punctuation (like hyphens and spaces) are replaced with the filler character < The surname/family name/primarily name/mononym is given first, then the filler character twice (<<), then the remainder is given/first/secondary names (if any; if none — a mononym, it’s just filled with “<“). Separate names in the surname or given name are separated with the filler character < The filler character < pads out the field to fill 39 characters.

        Suffixes (Jr, Sr, II, III, etc) are encoded as part of the last name, without punctuation.

        If the name is too long to fit the most significant parts of the name are used. Names may abbreviated if necessary to make them fit.

        If the very last character of the first line is not a “<“, it means the name was clipped due to lack of space.

      • Artemis

        Thank you for the explanation! Actually the Japanese passport has the same MRZ, right? So I really thought this should convince the officers. But I think they just have they orders to write it like in the passport and that is how they do it. I have to renew my visa soon, and then I will again try to explain the problem pointing at the MRZ. That is why I see both systems at fault. Sure the German passport shouldn’t use German word as “geb”, but why don’t the Japanese use the MRZ to get the data from the passport?

      • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

        Yes, Japanese passports have the exact same MRZ. In fact, ALL countries use the exact same system described above if it’s a MRP (machine readable passport). In Japanese passports, the “alternate names” (in parenthesis, separated by slashes if more than one) for the family name and/or given name are not in the MRZ.

        The standard transliterations for German (SS, AE, OE, etc) for umlauts that are not plain 26 letter alphabet apply.

      • Gabriele Kubo

        Dear Inoue-san, your explanations of the MRZ line was very helpful. The German Embassy will try to approach Kasumigaseki on that point. We are really looking forward to the result. If Japan would agree to take the MRZ line data for the zairyu cards, this would be absolute correct and without the GEB. We all would be safe. Not only us, but also the French people here, who have “Ep” in their names ( for spouse, meaning spouse). Thanks again for your professional explanations!

  • Chuckmo

    Don’t waste too much time waiting for some bureaucrat to make a decision. At the service counter, most of them could probably be replaced with charts.

  • milk

    I had never thought about it before now, I just used cash. Maybe because it’s fast and accepted everywhere. Topping up my pasmo, getting food at small stalls, paying my landlord.. basically I normally needed to have cash so that’s probably why I kept preparing cash for everything.

    I just said “if it were me” anyway, so there’s nothing to argue about and I’ve explained myself enough now.

  • Gabriele Kubo

    Creating a separate field on the passport called “maiden name” or “birth name” would be phantastic! If only we could create that by ourselves! Problem is how to convince Germany that they should call in all existing passports of their citizens and rewrite them. The biggest success we could achieve would be a change for passports to be printed from now on.

  • Laura de Ruiter

    Funnily enough, when I (a German) got married and took on my husband’s name, the authorities forgot to put my maiden name in my passport and ID card. And I didn’t realize this until some time later. This in turn now causes problems with the pension scheme, or instance, because I have some documents with my maiden name on it and no proof that I am the same person… I hope I will be able to rectify this when the passport will be renewed. (No plans to get divorced and marry in Japan!)

  • Ivar

    Since the cause of the problem is that German passports contain incorrect information in the name field, the solution is to demand a free replacement from Germany. As an international identification document, obviously the passport must not under any circumstances whatsoever contain any data in the name field other than the actual name! If the German authorities feel the birth name needs to be included, they can simply add a separate field for that information. In English the field is usually called “Name at birth.”

    The Japanese officials are to be commended for accurately copying the name as stated where it must be assumed to be correct.

  • Anika

    The geb. is only visible at passport and offical id card in Germany. On any other documents it is not written, because not our real name.
    And it would be able to have a seperate line for it, but they have to change the whole layout to do so.

    I say, the fault for this problem is the geb. in the name line in the German passport. So Germany is responsible.

    But as all passports in the world carry the MRZ with the real name and the correct transcription for umlaut äüö and ß and all other “strange” characters all over the world, Japan should have used that line for the zairyu cards from the beginning!

    We are not allowed to explain the geb. because we are not trustworthy. But when it comes to get umlaut on zairyu cards, we have to explain how to write them. Then we are trustworthy? Doesn’t make sense…

  • Bill Willard

    The problem is that Japanese bureaucrats are so single-minded and robotic in their dealings. Everything must be “by the book” and there should be no area of interpretation. I have seen this numerous times in Japanese mfrs. I have worked for. If you don’t go along with their understanding everything just stops and the project doesn’t move forward as they don’t want to be held responsible for making a decision outside the lines. My belief is that this is all rooted in the Japanese educational system.