Osaka native Haruko Kubota has waged a lifelong struggle to be “certified” as a living resident.
Kubota (not her real name), 31, a petite mother of three with long dyed hair, doesn’t have a “koseki” family registration. Lacking a family registry is a tremendous disadvantage — and virtually unthinkable — in a nation where all citizens are supposed to have their names registered at birth.
This registration serves as the basis for public services and for carrying out many commercial transactions.
But Kubota was born out of wedlock, fathered by a man her mother met while on the run from an abusive husband. Her mother never registered her birth with local authorities out of fear that the husband would retaliate.
Kubota had no option but to live in the shadows, ineligible for the rights and opportunities to which listed citizens are entitled. She is an unregistered resident, a state known as “mukoseki.”
Experts say there are at least 10,000 people in Japan who, like Kubota, fall through the cracks of the family registration system. However, the Justice Ministry’s official count as of November was just 427.
On paper these people legally don’t exist, and thus are not issued a “juminhyo” residence registration certificate. They are also ineligible for a passport, driver’s license or membership in the supposedly universal public health care and welfare system. They have to pay all of their medical bills, unlike the vast majority of people who pay 30 percent or less under the government’s national health insurance system.
Unregistered Japanese also face limited job opportunities and can’t open a bank account into which a salary would be paid.
Surprisingly, these people and the day-to-day hardships they endure fall under the radar of social awareness.
“Whenever I went to a municipal office asking for help, the first reaction from the officials was disbelief,” Kubota says. “Their typical response was, ‘We’ve never heard of anything like this.’ ”
For a long time, Kubota didn’t even know about her registration status and attended school like other kids. The education ministry allows children not listed in family registers to finish compulsory education if they submit a written explanation about their circumstances every year.
But when she became a teenager and started running into trouble with the police for petty offenses such as smoking and loitering, her mother and her biological father felt they could no longer keep the secret. Because Kubota lacked a proper ID, it was extremely time-consuming for them to retrieve her from police custody.
“When I was 15, my parents told me out of the blue,” Kubota recalls. “I couldn’t understand what that meant. My next thought was, ‘Oh, I can probably never get married.’ ”
Kubota soon left home and started working, staying at a friend’s house and changing jobs every time her employers asked for her bank account details. In her late teens, she started working as a hostess at a bar in Osaka that paid her in cash and provided accommodation.
Then she got pregnant. She tried to marry the father, but that hope was dashed when her fiance’s family took issue with her family registration status.
She subsequently met her current partner, with whom she has had two more children.
For years, Kubota felt she had no one to turn to for help, and repeatedly ran into red tape from local officials who told her that her mother first had to legally divorce her husband, who lived in the Tohoku region.
Kubota says that option wasn’t possible, because her mother remained traumatized by her abusive husband and the sexual harassment his father inflicted on her, and thus had no desire to contact the man even to initiate divorce proceedings.
“I made countless visits to municipal offices,” Kubota says. “It’s obvious I was born and I’m here now. But I was told I can’t be recognized until my parents are divorced, and no consideration was given to my children.”
A major breakthrough came in 2007 when, through the help of a municipal official, she was introduced to Masae Ido, a journalist-turned-politician who, using her real name, became the first woman to go public with her own children’s mukoseki problems.
Ido’s story is considerably different from Kubota’s. She became pregnant with her fourth child in 2002 with her current partner, after divorcing her first husband. But because of the so-called 300-day rule in the Civil Code, which states that a child born within 300 days of a mother’s divorce is the legal offspring of the divorced man, she had to go to court to prove her current husband fathered the child.
“The 300-day rule is based on a slipshod estimate, because it is about a month longer than the actual duration of a pregnancy, from conception to delivery,” she said. “That is the same as saying that a man can put his ex-wife under his sexual control for a month following their divorce. It’s a rule that is tantamount to justifying rape.”
In a landmark case in November 2003, Ido made the courts establish the paternity of her fourth child without having her ex-husband appear before the bench.
Ido, who served as a Lower House member from the Democratic Party of Japan from 2009 to 2012, now runs a support group for mukoseki people. Ido introduced a lawyer to Kubota who helped get her name inserted in her husband’s register as well as proper listing for her children. As a stopgap measure, Kubota’s name is mentioned in the “notes” column of her husband’s register, though without a proper entry for herself yet. Because of this, her three children have avoided trouble and now qualify for all public services. Through a separate measure taken by her municipal government, Kubota has also been issued a juminhyo.
Ido estimates there are at least 10,000 people with no family registration, based on the annual number of cases in which legal requests for registration filed by such people are turned down.
The problem has become serious in the last 50 years or so, Ido says, though the Civil Code itself has been around for more than a century.
Before that, women used to give birth mostly at home, which meant mothers with paternity complications quietly delayed registering births to make themselves exempt from the 300-day rule.
As hospitals became the main venues for births, however, paternity became a legal issue for more people because those institutions don’t accept ambiguities regarding dates of birth, Ido said.
Kubota eventually managed to persuade her mother to divorce her husband in Tohoku through court mediation. This paved the way for Kubota to seek a separate decision from the court to have her biological father recognized as her legal father.
Last October, the Osaka Summary Court judged her mother’s common-law husband, who is now deceased, to be her father. It is believed to be the first case in which a Japanese court recognized paternity after the father died and without DNA evidence to back up the biological ties.
However, while four months have passed since the court decision, Kubota remains unlisted in the registry. Justice Ministry officials have told her that to get registered she must first divorce her husband and change her family name to that of her mother’s former husband. Then she can register her birth under her now-deceased biological father’s register, before she remarries her current husband and enters his family register. Kubota finds this an unacceptable solution.
“I can’t understand why I have to divorce my husband,” she says. “I find that really unreasonable.”
Ido said the mukoseki problem is part of broader issues surrounding the registry system, which is based on families, not individuals.
Most men keep their family names after getting married, so husbands become the heads of new registers created under their names, whereas wives are treated almost as if they are additions to their husbands’ registers.
“The current family registry system has a lot of flaws,” Ido says. “Its patriarchal aspect needs to be addressed more.”
Ido feels people like Kubota should not have to compromise for the system’s shortcomings and follow the steps laid out by the Justice Ministry.
“The unregistered people are not saying they only want to be listed on a register,” Ido said. “They have had such a hard time, feeling the inconveniences of not being listed their entire lives. So they are experiencing an identity crisis. Their requests for listing are cries for help, cries that they want to be recognized for who they really are.”