Editorials

Flaws in the family registry system

There are thousands of people in Japan who are not listed on a family register. Such people face various difficulties, given that the family register is an official document that certifies individuals’ basic legal status, including Japanese nationality, and also lists their birth date, marital status and date of death. Unregistered Japanese, for example, cannot vote or run as a candidate in elections, join the public health insurance system, obtain a driver’s license or sit for state examinations for certain qualifications.

A civic group estimates that some 10,000 Japanese are unregistered. Many of them are believed to be in such a situation because of difficult circumstances surrounding their parents’ marriage. The government should immediately take steps to resolve these problems and relieve unregistered Japanese of the difficulties they face in their daily lives, especially in receiving administrative services.

In September, the Kobe District Court handed down a ruling enabling a 32-year-old woman who had no family registry since birth to join her mother’s family register. Her mother became pregnant in a relationship with a man other than her husband and gave birth to her while still legally married. The mother would not register her birth because she did not want to list her as the child of her abusive husband.

Article 772 of the Civil Code says that if a woman becomes pregnant while she is married, the child should be registered as the child of her husband. The Kobe court determined that the article should not apply in the case because the woman’s mother was in a state of de facto divorce when she became pregnant. The woman will be allowed to join her mother’s family register with the section for the father left blank.

In a similar case, the Osaka District Court ruled last week in favor of a 30-year-old woman who had never been listed in a family register after being born to a mother who had been abused by her husband. Although the woman’s biological father had died in December 2011, the court determined that her mother and the father, although not legally married, were in a state of de facto marriage and permitted the woman to be placed in her mother’s family registry.

Another provision in Article 722 of the Civil Code — that a child born to a woman within 300 days of her divorce should be registered as the child of her former husband — is also believed to deter some divorced women from legally registering the birth of their children.

The Justice Ministry has instructed local legal affairs bureaus to gather information on unregistered people. In view of the difficult family environment that many of these people have, it is seen as unlikely that they will take the trouble of seeking help from the bureaus or municipal governments. Therefore, the bureaus should make a serious effort to locate them.

The ministry and municipal governments should step up legal assistance, including provision of advice and financial support for legal fees, so that unregistered people can file lawsuits or request mediation for confirmation of the absence of legal ties with their mothers’ former husbands or recognition of legal affiliation between them and their biological fathers. Government officials should also demonstrate flexibility in their handling such cases so that these people can receive certificates of residence, child allowances or have passports issued even before their legal problems are officially resolved.

More importantly, the central government should start discussions on revising the Civil Code to eliminate the circumstances that leave so many people unregistered in the first place. It also should consider fundamental changes to the family registration system, including a proposal to turn it into a system based on individuals rather than families.