Media Mix, Feb. 28, 2021

Family register

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Japanese government’s plan to digitize more public services. Japan remains relatively behind in this regard, despite its reputation for technological savvy, and it seems mainly due to the vertical organizational structures described in the article. Without greater connectivity across public and private organizations it will be difficult to make the changes necessary to digitize functions. As for the so-called cultural aspects, those are more difficult to figure out. Generally speaking, the Japanese public doesn’t trust the authorities when it comes to handling their private information, which is why the My Number system hasn’t progressed as quickly as expected. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has acted as the de facto watchdog on government overreach when it comes to collecting citizens’ data, but the reluctance to digitize the family register, as pointed out in the column, is one of the more visible obstacles to the kind of bureaucratic overhaul the government has in mind, and as the official told the Tokyo Shimbun reporter, the resistance is rooted in historical and nationalistic considerations. The reporter points out that in Europe, it’s considered bad form to “inquire” into a person’s nationality because “ethnic fluidity” should be assured. In Japan, however, it’s still all about blood, which is why the family register, the document that defines a family, is so important, because it makes the government the arbiter of such matters. Japanese people must report their marriages and the births of their children to the authorities, and these events are not actualized until the authorities approve them by registering them in the koseki. Much has been made about the government’s opposition to allowing separate surnames for married couples, and the main reason that some couples object to this law is not so much because they want separate surnames but that they don’t want the government telling them what they can call themselves. A name, after all, is one’s most personal possession, and while in practice Japanese people can call themselves anything they want, legally they can’t. Something similar surrounds the concept of paternity. The government reserves the right to decide who is the father of a child depending on who reports the birth of that child for entry into the family register, and the status of the identified father of the child vis-a-vis the mother. The reason for this is simple. Mothers give birth, so maternity is easy to determine. But as for who the father is, discounting the modern use of genetic identifiers, it’s not as simple, so the authorities use the family register system and the Civil Code to determine paternity on their own terms, which also determines “legitimacy,” since a father who is not married to the mother is recorded differently. These are some of the cultural aspects of the family register that may make it difficult to digitize the system, since they depend on face-to-face encounters.

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