Japan's Invisible Children

Japan's Invisible Children
Photo Credit: Depositephotos

What you need to know

The combination of historical notions of family and an unwavering adherence to myths of the purity of Japanese bloodline paralyse Japanese society

There are approximately 3000 children born in Japan each year that are bureaucratically, administratively and legally invisible. Many of these invisible children grow up to be invisible adults and spend their lives on the periphery of Japanese society, unable to participate as full citizens. Referred to as mukosekisha, the ‘unregistered’ are not recorded on the household registry.

Household registration is the definitive mechanism by which legal status as a Japanese national is determined. It also mediates individual legal status through the family unit.

For the unregistered, there is no established link between the individual and the state and no legal connection to family members. As a result, they have no or limited access to services such as education, welfare and insurance. Medical care is severely compromised. The ability to obtain a driver’s license, a passport and the right to vote and to own or rent property becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Without legal status, the unregistered are also generally disadvantaged financially because they cannot legally work. They are open to exploitation as their ability to exercise democratic rights is compromised. People in this position are also often impacted by stigma and prejudice, making their situation isolating and difficult to address.

The large majority of unregistered in Japan become so at birth. Unlike most other nation states, the process for legal recognition as a Japanese national is a two-step procedure of birth registration, followed by household registration. If either of these processes is disrupted or incomplete the child is effectively rendered stateless.

For example, a Japanese woman, a victim of domestic violence, ran away from her abusive husband. She did not file for formal divorce and remained legally married when she became pregnant to another man. Under Japan’s Civil Code, her daughter would have to be registered with her husband noted as the father. In doing so, he would be notified of the birth and discover her whereabouts, something she wanted to avoid. The woman therefore chose not to submit a birth certificate, which meant she was unable to register her daughter. Her daughter is now 30 years old and stateless.

Another Japanese woman remarried and gave birth to a child within 300 days of divorcing her first husband. Despite her new husband being the biological father of the child, the local ward office told her that her former husband was the legal father. She was ordered to change the birth certificate to reflect this. When she refused she was told to take the matter to court where ‘the nation will decide the father of the child’. During this time her child was without official registration.

Disruptions and discontinuities in the birth and household registration process are mostly a result of Article 772 of the Japanese Civil Code, which carries two conditions. First, a child conceived by a wife during marriage shall be presumed to be a child of her husband. And second, a child born after 200 days from the formation of marriage or within 300 days of the day of the dissolution or rescission of marriage shall be presumed to have been conceived during marriage.

Article 772 has remained largely intact since 1896, when Confucian and modern Western notions were brought together to form policy. Confucian thinking, which saw women as a means of preservation of the household, was blended with Western notions of marriage, placing the husband in the position of authority and giving no rights of estate inheritance to the wife. This approach is historically entrenched and was designed to protect patrilineal inheritance and a presumption of birth during wedlock.

Article 772 is part of a wider context in Japan where the right to membership of the nation state is dictated through an ideological filter within the legal process of registration. The individual is fixed to an entity that is defined, controlled and recorded directly by the state and is mandatory for the recognition of legitimate legal status. This entity is the household, constructed through a normative and anachronistic notion of the family.

Women and children are particularly discriminated against by Article 772 because it is embedded within a framework that is obsolete in contemporary Japan. It favors patriarchy and tradition in determining legal status and is defended by conditions of legitimate birth, fidelity and convention.

This approach renders women in circumstances of divorce, separation or domestic violence particularly vulnerable because they infringe this archaic notion of family. With limited choice and assistance, women are often forced into making the drastic decision to opt out and exclude their child from obtaining legal status.

It seems absurd for a nation suffering from rapid demographic decline and an ideology that adheres to bloodline as a marker of being Japanese to exclude and render invisible citizens. But this disjuncture is unsurprising because it reflects the broader problems of how Japan defines itself and mediates its population by way of limiting notions of family and nation. The combination of historical notions of family and an unwavering adherence to myths of the purity of Japanese bloodline paralyse Japanese society. The detrimental effects of this approach will only increase as Japan becomes more diverse and conservatives grasp harder on to the past.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White