Media Mix, Mar. 6, 2011

Seiko Noda

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is a survey of recent news stories related to the issue of illegitimate children, a term that has mostly been abandoned in the West since it bears a negative stigma. “Out-of-wedlock” is more neutral sounding but also more awkward to use from a stylistic perspective. My preference for “illegitimate” isn’t just because it’s easier to utilize in a sentence, but because that negative stigma is built into its use in Japan. In the column I repeatedly mention that illegitimacy is “indicated” in the Japanese family register. Though there is a clearly defined term for illegitimacy in Japanese (hichakushutsu) you won’t find it in the register. However, anyone who can read the document will know whether or not the person was born out of wedlock. If the person’s parents were married to each other when the person was born, then the person would be listed in the parents’ family register in the order of succession: first son or daughter, second son or daughter, etc. If the person is simply listed as a male or female, that means he or she was born out of wedlock. This distinction is important because one of the main purposes (if not the main purpose) of the koseki is to establish a heirarchy within the family, something that Japanese people understand in their bones and which traditionalists equate with familial unity. However, it also means that illegitimate children can always be identified as such by anyone with access to the koseki, and since the document is often scrutinized by employers and others in positions of authority, it can have the effect of making the individual feel second-class.

Some may look upon this matter as being little more than bureaucratic hair-splitting, and, for sure, there is no reason to believe that a person with an illegitimate indication can’t achieve his or her life’s goals; but the fact is there are still many Japanese who believe that while illegitimate children shouldn’t be made to suffer for something that isn’t their “fault,” the designation is still important. A reporter named Tetsuo Sakamoto wrote an article for the Jan. 23 issue of Sankei Shimbun in which he predicted the “collapse” of the Japanese family if separate names for married couples (bessei) were allowed in Japan, because it would lead to more “illegitimacy.” He cites statistics that show a marked increase in out of wedlock births among the major industrialized countries of Europe where separate names are allowed, in particular Italy, a nation that was once a bastion of domestic solidarity because of the moral control of the Catholic Church, which has weakened in recent years. Sakamoto doesn’t actually say how this “collapse” has adversely affected these countries in Europe (France’s illegitimacy rate is about half of all births, but it also has an overall birthrate that the Japanese authorities would die for). He simply assumes that illegitimacy is inherently bad. Where his logic really buckles, however, is tying separate names to illegitimacy. The fact is, the vast majority of Japanese people who want to retain their birth name after marriage want to get married. If the government allowed separate names it would actually reduce the incidence of illegitimacy. That’s why the example of Seiko Noda is so instructive. The only reason she didn’t marry her partner was because she felt an obligation to her grandfather, who adopted her because he didn’t have an heir to pass on his name. And the only reason she got married is because she didn’t want her child to be designated as illegitimate. The problem in Noda’s case is that since she’s a politician who identifies herself as being “conservative,” she feels the need to qualify her support of bessei by saying that some people only want separate names for selfish reasons. But what’s wrong with that? What kind of government would deny its people something as basic as the right to decide their own names?

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