A family register is perhaps the most important document for Japanese citizens, serving as the basis of each person’s legal identity. The document lists an individual’s date of birth, marital status and date of death, and certifies the person’s Japanese nationality. Since unregistered Japanese cannot get a passport or a residents’ certificate, they face tremendous difficulties and disadvantages in society. For example, they cannot join the public health insurance and pension systems or obtain a driver’s license. They cannot take government examinations for professional qualifications, vote or run for political office.

There are a large number of Japanese not in the family registry system. To fix this problem, the Justice Ministry is directing all 50 of its legal affairs bureaus across the country to set up a council to help people file lawsuits aimed at removing legal obstacles that prevent them or their relatives from being registered. Each council will include people from bar associations, family courts and the Japan Legal Support Center (Houterasu).

Since the unregistered people in need of such help generally aren’t well-versed in legal matters and may not be able to afford legal action, this kind of support can be of great importance for them. The ministry should have the legal affairs bureaus lose no time in setting the councils up and putting them in motion. In doing so, the ministry should make sure that experts on the councils will coordinate with each other so that unregistered individuals can be registered as soon as possible.

Most unregistered people came to be that way because of provisions in Article 772 of the Civil Code. The article says two things: that if a woman becomes pregnant while she is married, the child should be registered as that of her husband, and that a child born to a woman within 300 days of her divorce should be registered as that of her former husband.

These provisions are problematic for women who have children with men other than their husband while they are still married or if 300 days have not passed since their divorce. If the women go through the normal family registry procedure, such children will be registered as those of their husbands or former husbands. To avoid this, many such mothers opt not to register their children.

In 2014, the Justice Ministry started looking into the situation of unregistered people. As of Oct. 10, it located 1,495 individuals who either lacked a family registry or previously had been unregistered. Of that total, 780 managed to get registered and 715 remaining unregistered. But a citizens’ group formed by families that have unregistered relatives estimates that some 10,000 Japanese do not have a family registry. It is believed that newborns continue to be left unregistered each year. The ministry should step up cooperation with the group in its efforts to get an accurate grasp of the problem.

If women want to have their children registered without getting them registered as children of their current or former husband, they need to have them request a family court to start an arbitration process to declare that the father-child relationship does not exist. One possible problem is that the current or former husbands may not cooperate. If they are abusive, some women may have psychological difficulties contacting or meeting with them. If those women want the children to be registered as those of their biological fathers, they also must go through a court procedure to get the biological fathers to confirm the children as their own.

To complete the court procedures successfully, many legal and other problems have to be overcome. Members of the proposed legal affairs councils should fully share their knowledge in legal matters and experience from handling concrete cases so they provide the best possible support to the women who want to have their children registered and to the unregistered children.

These experts also need to work in close contact with local officials in charge of family registry matters, who may have accumulated information and experience related to unregistered people, as well as with people who have solved their own or their children’s problem of unregistered status.

For their part, the government and the Diet should consider whether they need to change the 300-day rule under the Civil Code and its provision that affords only the current or former husbands the right to request a family court arbitration process to deny the father-child relationship.

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