Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

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

by Louise George Kittaka

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