Photo/IllutrationA woman in her 60s is seeking a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of a civil law provision that grants the right to deny the legitimacy of a child only to the husband. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A number of people in Japan are suffering from social disadvantages because their births were not registered and, as a result, they are not listed on a family register.

In response to this urgent issue, the Justice Ministry plans to set up, possibly in October, a study group comprising such experts as ministry officials, lawyers and scholars.

At the root of the problem are civil law provisions concerning legitimacy of birth that date to the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

The group needs to discuss the issue from a broad perspective and come up with realistic and specific proposals to correct the problem as soon as possible.

Japanese civil law stipulates that a child conceived in wedlock is presumed to be the child of the mother’s husband. It also says a child born within 300 days after the mother’s divorce is presumed to be the child of her former husband.

There are mothers who avoid registering the birth of a child at a municipal office to prevent these provisions from being applied to the child for various reasons.

More than 700 such unregistered persons are known to the government.

Take, for example, the case of a child born out of wedlock to a woman who has fled from her violent husband. If the birth is registered, the child is legally presumed to be the child of the woman’s husband.

The civil law also has a provision for denying the legitimacy of a child. But it grants the right to do so only to the husband. Neither the wife nor the child has the right to deny the child’s blood relationship with the woman’s husband.

After suffering from disadvantages due to this provision, a woman in her 60s and her daughter and grandchildren (the daughter’s children) have filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the government. The plaintiffs argue that the civil law provision is a violation of the Constitution, which guarantees gender equality.

In a ruling handed down in August, the Osaka High Court upheld the lower court decision that ruled the provision constitutional. The high court said the right to deny the legitimacy of a child should be limited in scope to ensure stability of the father-child relationship.

But the court acknowledged the possibility that this provision could cause unfair and serious disadvantages to the wife and child involved. It said it is up to the Diet to decide whether the law should be revised to also give the right to the wife and child.

The woman who filed the suit gave birth to the daughter out of wedlock about 30 years ago while separated from her violent husband.

After she was divorced, the woman tried to register the daughter as the child of her new partner, the daughter’s biological father. But her application to register the birth was not accepted due to the civil law provision.

The daughter and grandchildren remained unregistered until the death of her former husband.

The daughter was denied a passport while the grandchildren did not receive notifications of health examinations before entering elementary school.

“People suffering (from this rule) are longing for relief from the problem as soon as possible,” the woman says.

The Osaka High Court supported the Kobe District Court’s ruling in November, which effectively confirmed the status quo while pointing out flaws with the system.

The plaintiffs have appealed the high court ruling, but the system should be reformed immediately.

The planned study group will discuss issues including whether the right to deny a child’s blood relationship with a man should also be given to the wife and the child.

In addition, the panel should also discuss a wide range of civil law provisions concerning legitimacy of birth and marriage.

In a recent news conference, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa pledged to make “serious efforts to tackle legal issues concerning the family from the viewpoint of children.”

Kamikawa needs to deliver on her promise.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 18