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Japan’s rigid koseki system keeps it all in the family

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita is being criticized for comments she made about how LGBT individuals should not receive government “support” because, biologically speaking, they can’t have children and are thus “unproductive” as members of society. Although the media have covered her remarks and the backlash, they’ve avoided the elephant in the room — the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Sugita’s mentor, has no offspring himself. It’s nobody’s business why Abe and his wife are childless but, as political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi asked in a July 29 Tokyo Shimbun column, can Sugita say to Abe’s face that his administration should withhold support for childless citizens?

Sugita’s LGBT stance is one component of her defense of the so-called traditional Japanese family, her main agenda as a public figure. In this capacity, her wildest assertion, made in a July 4, 2016, Sankei Shimbun column title “Mio Sugita’s Nadeshiko Report,” is that the Japanese day care system is part of a scheme by the Communist International to “brainwash” children and “destroy the Japanese family” by popularizing separate names for married couples and support for gender-free issues. The Communist International was a global movement to spread communism, and it officially ended under orders from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1943, but certain people feel it’s still active as a kind of lingering, insidious cabal.

The Japanese family is codified in the family register (koseki), which effectively makes separate names illegal and identifies interrelational traits, such as legitimacy and succession, for all to see and for the rest of the individual’s life. In effect, it is really the koseki that brainwashes by establishing in Japanese people’s minds a rigid family structure.

Some have tried to get around this system, but it has been conceived in such a way as to be inviolable. Documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda, who is based in New York, is currently suing the Japanese government for not allowing him and his Japanese wife to have separate names on their koseki. The couple were married in the U.S. some 20 years ago and kept their respective birth names. However, when they tried to register their marriage in Japan the relevant local government office refused to acknowledge the union because only one family name is allowed on a koseki document. An argument Soda could use is that foreign people who marry Japanese nationals can be incorporated into their Japanese partners’ koseki without either spouse having to change their name, so why can’t he and his wife do the same thing? The upshot is that if they had children, those children would be deemed illegitimate in Japan, even though they are legally married overseas.

What people such as Sugita fail to recognize is that the koseki system exacerbates Japan’s current demographic crisis. It may not have as huge as an effect as economic insecurity does, but if people aren’t going to marry in Japan for whatever reason, they aren’t going to have children, because the stigma attached to illegitimacy is built into the koseki.

The koseki’s most powerful effect is that it makes people believe that family is only defined by blood, which is why child adoption is so rare in Japan. In fact, the word “adoption” by itself describes bringing people into one’s koseki for the purpose of inheritance, so the vast majority of adoptees are adults. If you adopt a child, it’s called a “special adoption,” and the Justice Ministry is now reviewing the special adoption system to make it easier for couples to adopt older children. As it stands, only children up to the age of 6 can qualify for special adoptions.

The legal advantage of special adoptions is that the child can be entered into the adoptive parents’ koseki as their own blood relation, rather than as an “adopted child,” which is how they are designated under normal adoptions. It’s bureaucratic sleight-of-hand. Only an expert can tell by looking at the koseki that the “specially adopted” child is not the parents’ biological issue. For that reason, couples who specially adopt a child overwhelmingly prefer infants so that the children themselves grow up thinking that their guardians are their biological parents, even though child welfare professionals insist they be told of their provenance. This system results in only about 500 special adoptions a year.

The difficulties cut both ways. In a June 13 article, the Asahi Shimbun profiled a 22-year-old Kyushu woman who was taken in by a foster family at age 7. Although she loved the couple, that love was attenuated by the knowledge that they weren’t her real parents, and she hid that fact from everyone. She understood the couple was receiving money to raise her, but, as she told the Asahi, she was “desperate” to be in their koseki. When her biological mother, who had refused to relinquish custody despite saying she was unable to raise her daughter, died when the girl was 14, she was free to be adopted. After turning 18, she told her foster parents, who were no longer legally responsible for her, that she would forego school and work full-time to pay them if only they’d put her in their koseki. She was too old to be a special adoptee, but she’d be in somebody’s family register — she wanted at least that much legitimacy, which is the whole point of the system.

This mindset is at play in the local backlash to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning film, “Shoplifters,” which has been derided by some Japanese who say the director accepted state funds to glorify a group of criminals. But a fundamental element of their objection to the movie is that the members of the family depicted are not connected by marriage or blood. To someone like Sugita, conveying to the world that this is a “Japanese family” amounts to blasphemy.