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Nothing is clear about court ruling on illegitimate kids

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Evidently I was wrong.

Two weeks ago in this space, in a passing reference to the unanimous Sept. 4 Supreme Court ruling declaring unconstitutional a Civil Code provision denying full inheritance rights to heirs born out of wedlock, I wrote, “The rank injustice of discriminating against children born, quite unwittingly, to parents not legally married seems glaringly clear.”

The truth is (or seems to be) that nothing (or very little) is “glaringly clear,” at least not to everybody in the same way, and last week Shukan Shincho magazine weighed in with a vigorous critique of the ruling.

The article opens with an account of the particular case the court was considering, involving the wife and mistress of a Wakayama restaurant owner and their respective children by him. The details as presented suggest relentless persecution and harassment of the helpless wife by the husband and his lover — just the sort of situation the overruled Civil Code clause was designed to curb, argue law experts the magazine speaks to. When the restaurant owner died in 2001, Family Court stepped in with mediation. Repeated efforts failed to satisfy the mistress and her children, and finally it went to the Supreme Court, with results as agreeable to them as to liberal commentators and the “international community,” which in the form of various United Nations agencies is perpetually chiding Japan over tradition-sanctioned discrimination of one sort or another.

The wife and her children, the magazine claims — and by extension other abandoned wives and children — are thus deprived of their one defense against husbands, fathers and mistresses who would run roughshod over them.

Several points emerge. First, what to make of the unanimity of the judgment? That all right-thinking people would inevitably reach the same decision? If so, why in 1995 did the same Supreme Court vote 10-5 against declaring the Civil Code provision unconstitutional?

Perhaps the unanimity suggests a craven yielding to outside pressure — in the name, for example, of “internationalization,” or (Shukan Shincho’s expression) “equality fundamentalism.” True, global trends seem to be moving in a consistent direction to which many opinion leaders give the name “forward,” as opposed to “backward.” Germany (in 1998) and France (in 2001) swept away the particular form of “discrimination” that Japan’s Civil Code had protected. “Times are changing,” it can reasonably be said. Does it necessarily follow that Japan must change in step with them?

“Japan is different” is the frequently-heard rebuttal of the assertion that it must. In some ways it is. In France, Shukan Shincho notes, 47 percent of births are out of wedlock; in Sweden, 55 percent are. In Japan the comparable figure is 2 percent.

That’s a difference, all right. Implying what — that the Japanese have an innate respect for the family? An innate respect for tradition? A reactionary fear of change? A natural tendency to discriminate? Interpret it as you will, a government survey in 2012 showed 35.6 percent of respondents unwilling to change the inheritance status quo, as against 25.8 percent who did want to change it.

That Japan is a “traditional” society is a familiar observation, true as far as it goes (but how far does it go, given the thorough trashing Japanese traditions took, first from late-19th-century modernization and then from World War II and its aftermath?). You can interpret traditionalism positively as an impulse to preserve what is best of the past, or negatively as — for example — something that the Japanese call mura hachibu. The dictionary defines it as “ostracism,” without tying it specifically to a mura (village) mentality, but when Spa! magazine in August took up the theme, it was to villages across the country that its reporters fanned out in search of cases in point.

Japan’s shrinking population is in motion. Tokyo is the strongest magnet, but rural communities steadily losing population to the urban diaspora have attractions of their own to jaded urbanites longing for peace, tranquility, simplicity, lush natural settings and all the other supposed country virtues. So imagine this: You’re fed up to the teeth with the urban corporate rat race. In the country there’s property going begging for buyers and local agencies eager to facilitate the arrangements. For them it means community renewal; for you, personal renewal, a new life. So everybody’s happy — right?

Ask “Mr. T,” a 34-year-old ex-Tokyoite who moved, full of hope, to an unnamed rural community in the Tokai region. A designer by trade, he figured on keeping that up, but at his own pace, doing a little farming on the side. Freedom! But his fellow villagers, he and his wife discovered too late, aren’t interested in freedom. What interests them is people living as they live — farming not for fun but as a serious full-time business — and anyone with different ideas can go back to where they came from, the sooner the better. Mr. T is holding firm for the time being, but wishes he had investigated the local mentality more thoroughly before committing himself.

Then there’s “Ms. F” and her husband, a couple in their early 30s, newly moved to a small community in the Hokuriku area. An influx of young couples is what village elders wanted. Young couples make babies. Babies grow up to be the next generation, and a “next generation” is precisely what depopulating villages lack. The welcome, cordial at first, turned venomous when the Fs let slip that they thought they’d wait a while before having a child. Mura hachibu began in earnest. In the big city it’s easy not to care what your neighbors think of you. Most often they don’t know you exist, and vice versa, and that’s the end of it. In a village — suffice it to say that rather than face the consequences of not fitting in, the Fs had a child. No sooner was Ms. F delivered than her neighbors confronted her: “When will you be having the next one?”

Perhaps what being a “traditional society” boils down to is simply this: a general inability to mind one’s own damn business, or even to conceive that there is such a thing as one’s own damn business and, by extension, none of it.

  • Ron NJ

    Just to put the statistics in context, I’d like to see a comparison on the rate of “dekikons” between Japan, France, and Sweden, which would probably clear up that huge statistical disparity. I imagine couples in Japan are much, much more pressured to get married once they find out they have a child than couples in France or Sweden.

  • JeremyA

    As you say, !Spa reporters went searching for cases in point. Search and you will find. Especially Shukanshi reporters just seeking corroboration for a misguided view. If my village is anything to go by, Mr. T and Ms.F are exceptions, and there are far, far more newcomers who have no complaints.

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    “Perhaps what being a “traditional society” boils down to is simply this:
    a general inability to mind one’s own damn business, or even to
    conceive that there is such a thing as one’s own damn business and, by
    extension, none of it.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this. Though I have no doubt my position as a foreigner helps encourage this kind of behavior, the utter nosiness of some some Japanese people is disgusting. I can’t help but cringe whenever somebody asks me my blood type as it seems that the ridiculous concept that it has anything to do with one’s personality is still a widely-held belief. It’d be nice if they finally grew up. I did that years ago.

  • OlivierAM71

    What is exactly the purpose of this article?
    Is it to criticize the Supreme Court ruling decision? Or the opposite?
    Also, what about the percentage comparison of babies born out of wedlock in Japan, France and Sweden?
    Writing about those statistics just after explaining the Japanese court case battle might give the reader the impression that in Sweden and France 55% and 47% respectively of the babies are born from a married guy with one or more of his mistress(es)… Which, of course, is not the case…