Who’s Your Daddy: Gender Identity and Paternity in Japan

Japan Lifestyle

In 2004, the Japanese government enacted the Gender Identity Disorder Law, which allowed transgendered people to finally change their sex on official identification. Although some argue that defining a change in gender identity as a disorder is wrong-headed and biased, the law does at least allow for people to live in society as their true gender without being outed every time they show ID. However, recent events have shown that although the law recognizes their gender, it doesn’t consider them equal to naturally born men and women.

Recently, a case came up where a man who was born as a woman was not able to register his child because officials noticed the change of gender in his files and would not recognize him as the legitimate father.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Japanese system, this requires a little bit of background. In Japan, official identification is based on the koseki, or family registry system. A household is required by law to report marriages, births, deaths, adoptions and the like to the local authorities, who compile a family record. A person must show proof that they are entered into a koseki to obtain things like government-funded health insurance or a passport. For Japanese, the koseki serves roughly the same purpose as a social security number, although it is not a number unique to an individual, but rather a record of all the major events in your family, including your birth.

Back to our story. The man in question changed the gender in his koseki from female to male, as allowed under the law. He then went on to marry his girlfriend, which was also allowed now that the law recognized him as a man. The couple wanted children, so the man’s brother volunteered to donate his sperm and the man’s wife was artificially inseminated. Nine months later, they became the proud parents of a healthy baby. Everything seemed to be going swell.

The problems began when they went to register the baby in the family koseki. Normally, if a baby is conceived by artificial insemination, there is no problem registering the child because city officials have no way of knowing about the methods through which a child was conceived. In this case, however, the official noted the man’s previous change of gender and concluded that the baby could therefore not be his biological child. The city sought the advice of the Ministry of Justice, and in the end, the child was not allowed to be registered.

The couple was given two options. They could register the child as “born out of wedlock,” an archaic designation that nevertheless still carries some stigma in Japan today. And after all, anyone reading your koseki will see this information. The other option was to have the man officially adopt the child, another option which will remain clearly written in the koseki and eventually become known to the child, regardless of the parents’ wishes. The couple decided neither option was fair and appealed the decision, leaving the child in the meantime with no koseki.

I try not to be judgmental about different value systems, and I understand that the koseki is a reflection of the traditional importance of family in Japan, but I find this case truly upsetting and a damning indictment of a system that punishes anyone slightly nonconformist. The koseki system is archaic and invasive and has allowed this  clear case of discrimination, and for what? To maintain a clear definition of biological legitimacy? It’s absolute nonsense.

It remains to be seen what will happen in this particular case. The man and his wife are continuing their appeals and Justice Minister Keiko Chiba has shown some interest in reviewing the issue. Let’s hope that the government will allow this poor family to live a normal life, and that in the future, such intrusions into personal privacy will be neither tolerated nor even possible.


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