If Japanese parents do not register their children’s births with the nation’s “koseki” (family register) system, they remain effectively “stateless” under Japanese law.

Various circumstances can lead to this situation. One example would be a woman who flees from her abusive husband and then conceives a child by a new partner, but she does not register the child’s birth.

In the background is Article 772 of Japan’s Civil Code, which stipulates that a child who is conceived before the mother’s divorce is finalized remains the husband’s legitimate child. This law has remained unchanged in the 120 years since its institution during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Of more than 700 such stateless individuals currently known to the government, roughly 75 percent are said to be the result of their mothers not registering the births.

But one private organization estimates the number at more than 10,000.

It is about time the government and the Diet worked to update the antediluvian law and eliminate this problem.

Recently, however, the Kobe District Court made a noteworthy ruling.

In a lawsuit filed against the government, a Hyogo Prefecture woman in her 60s, her daughter and others challenged Article 772 as a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equality of all under the law. The plaintiffs sought 2.2 million yen ($19,600) in damages.

The woman became separated from her abusive husband about 30 years ago. Before her divorce was finalized, she became pregnant by a new partner and gave birth to a girl.

Once she was legally divorced, she tried to register the baby as her new partner’s daughter, but this was rejected under Article 772, which denies women’s right to rebut the presumption of legitimacy.

Until her ex-husband’s death last year, the woman’s daughter and grandchild remained “koseki-less.”

Although the Kobe District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ damages claim, it pointed out that recognizing women’s right to rebut the presumption of legitimacy under certain conditions should be “an option,” and that any revision or improvement to the existing system should be “at the Diet’s legislative discretion.”

The court also mentioned the need for a system to help women seeking divorce from abusive spouses.

The woman’s daughter could not apply for a passport, and the grandchild was never notified of health exam requirements before starting elementary school.

In 2008 and 2012, the government issued notices to the effect that koseki-less individuals may apply for their legal resident status, subject to approval by the heads of municipalities, wards and villages. However, the rigidity of the required conditions has stood in the way of any fundamental solution to the problem.

The Justice Ministry last month instructed its regional legal affairs bureaus to work in concert with the Japan Bar Association and family courts.

“This is a grave problem affecting the dignity of individuals,” Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa noted.

We truly hope the minister will try to fully grasp the situation, ensure that the entire government recognizes the gravity of the problem, and strive to improve the system to benefit all individuals concerned.

And the Diet must understand that this matter concerns fundamental human rights, and start discussing realistic changes to the system without delay. The law must never be an instrument of discrimination and unwarranted social restrictions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 6