How-tos | LIFELINES

Family registers are off-limits to lawyers unless relevant to a case

by Kyoko Hijikata

We received a question from a lawyer in New York. He married a Romanian citizen recently who, he has now discovered, was married in 2009 to a Japanese man in Kagoshima. He would like to hire a Japanese lawyer to find out about the marriage, and, most importantly, whether a divorce was finalized, and possibly obtain legally verified copies of these documents.

In Japan, both marriages and divorces are recorded in a citizen’s family register or koseki (戸籍). Let me explain a bit about koseki first.

The koseki system was created as a means of registering and proving individuals’ details related to family. Important events in a person’s life, from birth until death, are recorded chronologically in their koseki. Specifically, a person’s name, sex, date and place of birth (and, eventually, death), information about parents, marital details (spouse’s name, date of marriage, date of divorce) and information about issues such as parental authority and inheritance are all recorded in the document.

The system is governed by the Family Register Act and administered by municipal authorities. Each person’s koseki is filed at the place where their permanent residence or honseki (本籍) is, and one koseki unit usually is made up of a family unit, such as parents and children.

Since the koseki acts as a kind of certificate of Japanese citizenship, there are no independent koseki for non-Japanese. However, when Japanese report events in their koseki that involve foreign nationals, that person’s information is included in the Japanese citizen’s koseki. For example, when a foreign person marries a Japanese, information such as the foreign partner’s name, date of birth and nationality are noted in the Japanese partner’s koseki.

Likewise, when a Japanese-foreign couple divorces, adopts or has a child, for example, these events should be reported to the local municipal authority, and the non-Japanese person’s information recorded in the Japanese person’s koseki. So, in the reader’s case, if his Romanian wife has in fact divorced, this would be described in her ex-husband’s koseki.

The Family Register Act stipulates that a lawyer may request the issuance of a copy of a family register to help in a case that’s already underway. For example, when a lawyer takes on a divorce case, he or she may ask for a copy of an individual’s family register to help with the litigation. On the other hand, a lawyer cannot ask for a copy of a koseki simply to find out whether a person is divorced or not, unless it is connected to a specific case.

So, even if he hires a Japanese lawyer, our reader cannot get information about the status of his Romanian wife’s last marriage. Even the woman herself would not be able to hire a lawyer to obtain a copy of the Japanese man’s koseki just to find this out. However, if, for example, the divorce was not concluded and the wife was to retain a Japanese lawyer for her divorce case, that lawyer would be able to request the information.

Kyoko Hijikata is an attorney with the Foreign nationals and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving non-Japanese in the Tokyo area (www. t-pblo.jp/fiss; 03-6809-6200). FISS lawyers address readers’ queries once a month. Your questions and other comments: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp