|A modern koseki form.|
In previous posts on Japan, I have made brief references to Japanese revisiting their "family seat" during the New Year holidays or visiting family graves at O-Bon, or at the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Today I want to explain just a little bit about what it means to be in a Japanese family, legally speaking, and why the traditional system has led to some widespread social injustice.
A koseki ( 戸籍) is a family record. The practice of keeping family records came from China, and there are other countries in Asia besides Japan that adopted the same system. The koseki system means that there is really no such thing as individual identification. You are always identified in terms of your family and your place within the family. A koseki records births, deaths, adoptions, marriages, and divorces, and having one is sole proof of Japanese citizenship. This means that if you are a foreign-born national living in Japan, you cannot have a koseki unless you get Japanese citizenship. (Oh, and to have citizenship, you have to renounce your current citizenship and change your name, legally, to a Japanese one.) Strangely, the only Japanese people without a koseki are members of the Imperial Family. Their entire family linage is recorded in the Imperial Family Record (kotofu 皇統譜). Although births and deaths of non-Japanese residents of Japan are recorded, they are not a part of a family register.
A koseki is just a piece of paper, albeit an important one. In times past – even when I was there – they were all handwritten. Nowadays they are recorded on computers and printed out whenever necessary. When Japanese people marry, they begin their own koseki. Every koseki lists one person as the "head of the household," and that person is always the male partner. (Homosexual marriages are not legal in Japan.) The only exception to this is if a Japanese woman marries a non-Japanese. Then the koseki is in her name, not her husband's, because he cannot have his own koseki. The average Japanese woman, therefore, does not have her own koseki. She is simply listed on her father's or husband's record. A foreigner's name is not actually listed as a "person" in the register. Instead, their name may only be written in the comments section to note a marriage or divorce.
One Chinese woman said that when her children first started school, she had trouble getting information about their schoolwork because she was not listed on the registration document. "They wouldn't accept me as the 'real' mother because I wasn't listed [on the family registry]," she said.
One Korean woman who was born in Japan reported that after the wedding, the landlord did not believe she and her husband were really married. "We had to go as far as showing our marriage certificate to prove we weren't 'living in sin.'"
The exact date of births and deaths are recorded, but for marriages, for example, if someone in the family doesn't go down to the city hall to register the marriage, then the marriage doesn't legally exist. That's why on my ex-husband's koseki our date of marriage is not listed as the actual date of our wedding in December 1974, but instead, as the date when he presented himself at the Japanese Consulate in Chicago to formally register the marriage, sometime in April 1975.
A Japanese woman's name is listed on her father's koseki as one of his children. When she marries, her name used to be struck from her father's record and put onto her husband's record – but only if she could prove that she was fertile enough to have a child! In other words, the woman was in legal limbo until she was listed on her husband's koseki.
Registries have been kept since the sixth century in Japan, but there were different registries for different purposes, and it is important to note that some classes of people were never added to registries. The Eta, or Burakumin people are the largest group that faced this issue. I was surprised to read recently that the issue of discrimination of the Burakumin people has been much more of a problem in the Kansai area (Western Japan, including Osaka) than it is in the Kanto (Tokyo) area. The source said that some Japanese in Kanto, especially young people, are not even aware of this issue.
Burakumin (部落民 "hamlet people"/"village people") are a group of people who were outcasts during the feudal era of Japanese history because they had jobs such as executioner, undertaker, slaughterhouse worker, butcher, or tanner. These jobs were considered impure because they were tainted by death. I should explain that in traditional Japan, as in many other areas of the world, it was taken for granted that the sons would do the same sort of work as their father, and that these "impure" jobs were not ones that were chosen.
These people, sometimes described as Japan's "untouchables," lived in their own villages or ghettos, and Burakumin settlements tended to be grouped into only two main areas in Japan. In 1871, the feudal caste system was legally disbanded, but this did not put an end to social discrimination against Burakumin, because when the modern koseki system was established the following year, family registration was fixed to the "ancestral home address," called honseki-chi, or family seat. This family seat was the actual, physical place where the koseki of all the family members were kept, whether or not they actually lived there anymore. The family seat was prominently listed on every koseki document. There was no official designation of "Burakumin" on anybody's koseki. There didn't have to be, because the only Burakumin families lived in certain areas.
Until the mid-1970s, anybody could get a copy of a person's koseki, which made it possible not only to discriminate against Burakumin, but also against people who were born illegitimate or unwed mothers, for example. Employers could deny jobs to Burakumin, landlords could refuse to rent to them, and people who were checking out a prospective bride or groom in an arranged marriage could terminate the bridal negotiations.
The Burakumin organized movements to deal with this discrimination, as early as the 1920s, but the modern Burakumin civil rights groups were formed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although the two main rights groups are diametrically opposed to one another and often argue, their activism did yield some positive results. In 1974, employers were prohibited from asking prospective employees to show their koseki. In 1975, the lineage name was deleted from the koseki and in 1976, access to family registries was supposedly restricted, but until a new law was implemented in May 2008, it was still easy for anyone interested to obtain a copy of anybody else's koseki. The new law specifies that, other than those whose names are actually recorded on the koseki, only debt collectors, executors of wills, and lawyers involved in a legal action for or against a person listed in the koseki can have access. Even if your name was once "crossed off" the koseki by reason of divorce, you are eligible to get a copy.
In order for my divorce to take place, my ex-husband had to get a copy of his koseki, which was located somewhere on the island of Shikoku. My ex-husband and his older sisters decided unilaterally that they didn't want to tell their parents about the divorce, but since my father-in-law was the only one who could request the document, the older of my ex-husband's sisters swiped his official seal while he wasn't looking and filled in the application "for" him. (This was easy, because the Japanese don't recognize signatures as legal, so there was no forging, just the unauthorized use of a seal.) When the document finally arrived from Shikoku, I traveled from Tokyo to Osaka for a couple of days and met my ex at the city office where he resided. We simply told the officials we intended to divorce without any legal disagreements, and the papers were filed in about 45 minutes. A copy of the divorce notation was sent back to the family seat in Shikoky, and I got a copy of my ex-husband's koseki on which the divorce was noted. This is my only "proof" of divorce.
Another problem with the koseki is that everyone on the same koseki must use the same last name. Recently, a number of women have started to object, particularly when the wife is a foreigner. As of 2005, the foreign spouse and the Japanese spouse were given the opportunity to change their name to that of their partner. Apparently, you have must do this within six months of the date of the marriage, or a lot of paperwork will be involved, and let me tell you, the Japanese are experts in paperwork and bureaucracy. They create it out of thin air, just because. Seriously.
In 2000, the United Natons Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination raised some questions about Japan's policies regarding koseki registration. The result was that two years later, the Minister of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications (Somusho) gave permission for the names of non-Japanese who are the "heads of household" to be listed in the "remarks" section of the document, provided that the foreign spouse requested such a listing. (If he didn't realize how important this document might turn out to be, a foreign spouse could neglect to make this request, with the result that he would not be able to get a copy of the koseki later, for whatever reason.) This particular change reflects the fact that the number of marriages registered between Japanese and non-Japanese is rapidly increasing. Back in 1970, fewer than 6,000 international marriages were registered in all of Japan. In 2000, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (Kouseisho) reported that one in 22 marriages (4.5%) were international. In the big cities of Osaka, the rate was one in 12 (8.3%) and in Tokyo, it was 1 in 10 (10%). This is a big change in a country that still sees itself as having a homogeneous population. :-/