Sex and the State

Shukan Kin'yobi's missives to
couples pondering a June wedding

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 17 July 1994, page 15

For commoners and Imperial Family members alike, marriage in Japan remains a tool for government control of the individual, the family and sexuality alike, says Shukan Kin'yobi in a seven-article, nine-page feature that reflects the long traditions of Asahiesque critics who have made their names out of battling the State.

Japan's marriage laws are a cornucopia of both sweets and lashes, according to Fukushima Mizuho, an attorney who grapples with issues like sexual harassment, spousal names, and discrimination against offspring of unmarried people. From the legal aspect, she writes, marriage in Japan has four characteristics.

One: A union is recognized as marriage only at which point it is registered. Marriage ceremonies and coresidence have no bearing on the legality of a relationship. In another article, law professor Shuhei Ninomiya observes that Japan has probably the simplest marriage laws in the world.

The same could be said for divorce.

This writer's personal experience also confirms that, in both marriage and divorce (including child custody and property division), there is so little interference from the state that one wonders whether it exists.

Two: Treating marriage as merely a matter of having filed legal notice of a heterosexual union is an.. integral part of Japan's domicile register system. This system keeps track of each person as a member of a single "domicile", (ko) or "corporate family" (ie). Its principles are thus "fundamentally unlike" those of the individualistic status registration systems found in some Euro-American countries.

Moreover, the registration system engenders status discrimination against people from former outcaste communities, children born outside of a marriage, and foreigners. Fukushima calls this family registration system "peculiar to Japan", though as Ninomiya .points out, a similar system is still found in the Republic of Korea as a vestige of the colonial period, between 1910 and 1945, when Japan forced Korea to adopt its laws as part of its effort to assimilate Korea into its empire.

Three: Though the largely patriarchic and primogenitural family system itself was abolished after World War H, the battle between its opponents and proponents resulted in a compromise that left some of its elements in place. So a family court can still hold a married person legally responsible for the support of their spouse's parents, siblings, and other in-law relatives within three degrees of consanguinity.

And a married couple must still share the same family name, since one spouse must move into the other's register, and the register can have only one name. Personal or familial choice, not the law, decides who moves. And in roughly 95 percent of all marriages the woman moves, resulting in a loss of status as "daughter" in one corporate family and an acquisition of status as "wife" in another. But old attitudes about the meanings of such changes in status for spouses and families remain in the phrases still used to describe the woman or man who moves.

Four: Women who marry receive a "not-so-tasty" government-issued candy called "Family Foundation Fulfillment Policy", which offers all kinds of tax, welfare, and social security incentives for a woman to marry, stay home, raise children, never divorce-and if she must work, then ideally only part time and even then not enough to affect her supposedly fully employed husband's spouse deduction. And the policy leaves a lot to be desired for unmarried mothers and their children.

Why, in any case, would a woman in her right mind want to be bound by the encumbrances of marriage? Not for sex, says free-lance writer Asakura Fumi. She herself vows never to marry, or to enter into any other kind of monogamous, exclusive sexual relationship. Her single motive: "I want to do it with a variety of men."

Sex, says Asakura, you can literally "do outside" if you want, though it's not something to show others. She used the expression yagou, or "outdoor union", a figure of speech for a relationship that has not been sanctioned by ceremony or law, or for a secret liaison. The term has been used to disparage the present political coalition in Japan; and Asakura employs it as the title of the small journal she publishes.

When someone tells you they are married, Asakura argues, they are all but forcing you to envision them in bed. Legal marriage is thus for people who possess a taste for bragging about their vices, but who want to receive the blessings of society for the sex they announce that they are having in the name of marriage. And domicile registration is the means by which the state manages such hey-look-I'm-doing-it-legally sex.

Sekiguchi Chie, co-author with Bangladeshi husband Sam Shahed of a book on how a visa overstayer married to a Japanese citizen can acquire special permission to reside in Japan, tells Shukan Kin'yobi why international marriages in Japan require a lot of physical stamina. Couples must endure all kinds of legal and extralegal abuse--beginning with the personal questions a government official might ask them: "When did you meet?" "Do your family and relatives approve?" "When did you start having sex?"

Toyo University lecturer Kano Mikiyo blames the discrimination against "unmarried mothers" and their offspring on the family register system, which she claims that the "emperor system" spawned as a means of controlling the masses. The Imperial Family is represented to commoners as the model for their behavior

Shukan Kin'yobi editors present statistics on TV and newspaper media coverage of the royal June 1993 wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito and former protegee diplomat Owada Masako. A final article by antiroyalist critic Amano Yasukazu wonders if all the media commotion about royal marriages and births might actually be "an image of the grotesqueness of marriage and childbirth among the masses."

Despite the sometimes doctrinaire tone of these appraisals of the state's controlling interest in the institution of marriage, the risk of social discrimination is clearly high for individuals who do not wish to indulge the government's urge to legislate their sex drives and family desires. Yet there are movements underfoot in government committees to revise the Civil Code and Family Register Law in favor of more choice and equal rights--proof that enough individuals have been flaunting or otherwise challenging legal conventions to force their liberalization.