Family and alien registers
Why they still need to be merged and how to merge them
By William Wetherall
First posted 1 January 2007
Last updated 15 July 2014
Original 2007 article
Why family and alien registers need to be merged and how to merge them
Alien registration since 2012 Early "Residence Management System" publicity | Later "Residency Management System" publicity
Merging alien and family registers How to facilitate the needs of Japan's changing population
Original 2007 article
Why family and alien registers need to be merged and how to merge them
The following article, consisting of only 4 paragraphs, was originally published as 4.7 Merging registers in "Nationality in Japan" in 2006 and first posted here in 2007. They express an opinion that began to germinate in the late 1970s, that merging family and alien registers would result in (1) greater efficiency in population management for the national government and local governments, and (2) greater convenience for individuals and families of all nationalities residing in Japan, including the increasing number and variety of mixed-nationality families.
Family and alien registers
Why they need to be merged and how to merge them
By William Wetherall
First posted 1 January 2007
Last updated 1 January 2007
Family registers, once tools for social control, are today merely records of birth, death, marriage, divorce, and adoption that facilitate personal identification, family law and inheritance, and a host of social and citizenship services. As a legal institution, family registration constitutes the administrative backbone of all crucial services, from child welfare and compulsory education, to national health and pension insurance, and even voter registration.
Municipal databases are now linked nationwide, and all Japanese have been assigned an 11-digit identification number. For the present, these numbers enable improvements in services that had already been automated with computers. At some point the numbers may also be used in health management, tax collection, driver licensing, and passport issuing -- much like the numbers originally intended only for Social Security in the United States have become practically universal personal file numbers, even in the private sector.
While all this may sound ominous, Japan simply consolidates birth, death, marriage, divorce, and other personal records that, in the United States, say, can be scattered across the fifty states and even overseas -- though Japan is not as yet as thorough as Sweden, Singapore, or any number of other countries that have comprehensive personal record systems. In terms of privacy, it is much harder to get personal or family information in Japan than in the United States, where even one's putative race is a matter of public record. Japanese family registers, which in any case contain only fairly innocuous and general information -- no financial or medical information, and no race boxes -- are in principle not open to public inspection.
The main drawback of Japan's family registration system is that it doubles as a Japanese national registration system. This has necessitated an alien registration system, which since 2000 has accommodated information about family members who live in Japan. From a purely bureaucratic point of view, it would make more sense to merge the national and alien registers into a common pool of family records in which all individuals, regardless of nationality, are treated alike. The Family Registration Law would have to be revised to incorporate alien registration, permit the use of Latin and other scripts in the registers, and provide a place to indicate each individual's nationalities. This would actually be easy to do, and would go a long way toward providing a common administrative foundation for serving all citizens of Japan, regardless of their nationality.
Alien registration since 2012
Alien registers under the "Residence (Residency) Management System"
From 9 July 2012, a so-called "Residence (Residency) Management System" -- 在留管理制度 (Zairyū kanri seido) or "[Alien] residence control system" in Japanese -- replaced the so-called "alien registration" (外国人登録 gaikokujin tōroku) system. The changeover was a sort of bait and switch maneuver in which the government traded in the old alien registration system for a newer model.
The distinction between Japanese and alien registers was clearly evident between 1947 and 2012, when aliens had to register with municipal authorities in the wards, cities, towns, and villages where they resided. They also had to carry an "alien registration certificate" -- originally a booklet, later a card -- which they received from the municipal authority.
Aliens originally applied for alien registration at the municipal hall of the ward, city, town, or village in which they lived. The certificate -- then a booklet -- was created and issued by the local authority, which maintained control and jurisdiction over the records its resident aliens.
When the booklet was replaced by a laminated card, the Immigration Control Bureau (ICB) took over the production of the card. ICB created cards at the request of local governments, which continued to administer all alien registration procedures but now more as an agent of ICB -- which sent the cards it made to the local governments for them to issue. Aliens continued to report changes in their situation -- name changes, address changes, changes in nationality or changes in passport numbers or dates of expiration -- to local authorities.
Under the alien registration system, aliens went to regional ICB offices only to obtain re-entry permits, change or renew their status of residence, or have status-of-residence and re-entry permit stamps transferred from an old passport to a new passport. Everything else was handled through local government offices -- i.e., by the local government which had control and jurisdiction over the alien's residential address, in the municipality where -- as a consequence of alien registration -- was citizen of the municipality, as were Japanese on municipal resident registration rolls.
For all legal means and purposes, alien registration for aliens -- and residence registration for Japanese -- were equivalent legal acts with equivalent legal effects -- all residents of a municipality were its citizens -- and their status as a local citizen was equal. Nationality didn't matter in so far as qualifications for being a municipal citizen were concerned. Nationality mattered when it came to rights of national and local suffrage, but that was a matter of rights and duties citizenship -- not a matter of the status of municipal citizen or affiliate -- kumin (ward affiliate), shimin (city affiliate), chōmin (town affiliate), and sonmin (village affiliate). Prefectural statuses -- tomin, dōmin, fumin, and kenmin -- were also equal for the Japanese and alien residents of a prefectural municipality. "Kokumin" (country affiliate) -- a national of Japan -- was a different status. Japanese were nationals because they possessed Japan's nationality. Aliens were aliens because they didn't possess Japanese nationality. Two "shimin" (city affiliates) of the same municipality were equally "shimin" even though they might be "kokumin" of different countries.
Under the 2012 "residence/residency management system", the relationship between alien residents and the municipality in which they reside is substantially different than it was under the alien registration system. Their status and lives as "citizens" of the municipality are the same. They now have less reason to visit municipal for purposes of alien registration. This seems an odd thing to say, since alien registration is supposed to have been abolished. But it hasn't been abolished. What used to be done under the name of "alien registration" is now being done under the name of "residence/residency management". What used to be done partly (and significantly) through local municipal halls, is now does all but exclusively at Regional Immigration Bureaus and ports of entry. The Ministry of Justice has simply cut local governments out of the chain of command, so to speak.
The legal status of aliens as municipal citizens did not change in 2012. Even when locally registering as aliens under the former Alien Registration Law, they had been municipal citizens, and were treated municipal citizens. The only change was in the manner in which their residency status is administered and controlled. Whereas originally municipalities had control and jurisdiction of alien registers, control and jurisdiction gradually shifted to the Immigration Bureau, which now has full control and jurisdiction of alien registers. Regarding alien residents, local officials now mediate only notifications of change of residence -- just as they mediate such notifications for Japanese.
The Japanese name of the new system suppressed the word "alien". But "zairyū" (在留) implies the "stay" or "sojourn" of an alien. It is used only to mean being or staying or remaining in a country with which one is not affiliated. The term is clear in Japanese. It is clear also in Chinese and Korean. Its clarity is lost in "residence" and "residency" -- English terms which are not restricted to outlanders.
The ambiguity of the English name of the new system fooled only aliens who couldn't read the Japanese, Chinese, or Korean publicity. Over the years, a few outlanders had objected to the term "alien" on their "Alien Registration Card" -- arguing that "foreigners" was less alienating. But least alienating would be no mention of either word on the card itself.
The much maligned and even despised "Certificate of Alien Registration" (外国人登録証明書 Gaikokujin tōroku shōmeisho) -- more commonly called "Alien Registration Certificate" or "Alien Registration Card" -- formally abbreviated "Gaitōshō (外登証) and informally called "Gaijin Card" (外人カード) -- was replaced by a "Residence Card" (在留カード Zairyū kaado).
How sweet. Linguistically innocent outlanders could say "I'm not an alien. I'm not even a foreigner. I'm just a resident -- like everyone else."
But no alien in Japan is a "resident" like everyone else -- even when a "resident" (住民 jūmin) of a municipality, a civil status that -- as a status -- is equal for all residents, whether Japanese or aliens.
The term "management" in English was another soft-sell element. The Japanese term "kanri" (管理) could of course be "management" -- if not for the fact that "kanri" has always been "control" in the name of the "Exit-enter-country [Immigration] control law" (出入国管理法 Shutsu-nyū-koku kanri hō) and the name of the "Enter-country [Immigration] control bureau" (入国管理局 Nyūkoku kanri kyoku).
We immediately have another problem in English -- for the law is not an "immigration" law. As its title says in Japanese, it's a law that controls departing and arriving, usually at designated ports, but in theory anywhere across a national border.
It's a border control law. It applies to all people regardless of nationality, race, religion, social status, or family origin. If the Crown Prince takes off in a balloon from the Imperial Palace and heads out over the Pacific, and returns to a week later, without going through proper exit and entry procedures, he will face one count each of unlawful exit and unlawful entry of the country.
"Nyūkoku" (入国) alone is "enter-country". In a stretch it might be "in-migration" in the sense of "movement into" the country. But "one who enters the country" (入国者 nyūkokusha) is an "entrant", not an "immigrant".
An entrant is an entrant regardless of nationality. An entrant could be a Japanese returning to Japan, or coming to Japan for the first time, both of which will be described as "returning-to-country" (帰国 kikoku).
Or an entrant could be an alien -- some in transit who will stay in the port or at a nearby hotel before continuing their journey -- or tourist, or short-term, mid-term, or long-term stayer, or a permanent resident, or a special permanent resident, or a diplomat or one or another category of alien. But no one is an "immigrant".
So much for the smoke. What about the mirrors?
Ministry of Justice publicity made points out of the benefits of the new system that were easy to appreciate. Earlier publicity was a bit stiffer and less more honest than later publicity, which benefited from editing and spinning.
Early "Residence Management System" publicity
The Ministry of Justice began preparing publicity for the changeover after the promulgation of the law that established the new system in 2009. I picked up copies of the Japanese and English editions of such publicity in 2011 when at the Abiko city hall.
The copies I obtained were machine copies probably made by the city hall from original brochures, which were probably in color. The Japanese and English versions were each three A4 sheets printed back-to-back. They designs of both were identical. The English version was in every way a direct translation of the Japanese version.
The following transcriptions of the Japanese and English text, slightly reformatted here, and the structural translation and commentary, are mine. The rose highlighting and [sic] flags also mine.
Advance Ministry of Justice circular
Circa 2011 (machine copies distributed by Abiko city hall)
To All foreign nationals residing in Japan
Some changes will be made to
Start of a new residence
The Act on Partial Amendments to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act and the Special Act on the Immigration Control of, Inter Alia, Those Who Have Lost Japanese Nationality Pursuant to the Treaty of Peace with Japan was promulgated on July 15, 2009, and a new system of residence management will be implemented from July 2012*.
Point 1 「在留カード」が交付されます
What exactly is the new system of residence management?
The aim of the new system of residence management system is to enable the Minister of Justice to continuously keep the information which is necessary for residence management of foreign nationals, and also to ensure further convenience for those foreign nationals who are residing legally in Japan. Specifically, foreign nationals residing legally in Japan for a medium to long term will be issued with residence cards. If a foreign national changes workplaces or makes some other form of change, he or she will be required to give a notification of such change. The maximum period of stay, which is now 3 years for those [sic] will be extended to 5 years and a system of special re-entry permission will be introduced for those foreign nationals who wosh [sic] to re-enter Japan within 1 year will [sic], in principle, without any application for a re-entry permit.
Point 1 A resident card will be issued
The Japanese is very precise and metaphorically consistent. There are no contradictions and nothing is ambiguous.
Metaphorical anomalies arise in the English translation -- not because the Japanese has to be translated that way -- but because translators, out of sheer habit, adopt established translations without thought -- sort of the way "tennō" (天皇) is dubbed "Emperor" in English even though Japan is not an empire and has no emperor -- and even though the "monarchs" who held the title "tennō" during Japan's imperial years were not actually "monarchs".
A structural translation -- which seeks to maintain the metaphorical integrity of the original text -- clearly shows the anomalies in the received translation.
The term "zairyu" (在留) means "to be in" as a matter of "staying" or "remaining" -- and applies only to aliens. The term may be used regarding Japanese "staying" in other countries, but is not used for Japanese in Japan -- where Japanese have an absolute right to be, and hence cannot be permitted to "stay" or "remain".
Note in particular that aliens permitted to enter Japan and stay for a period shorter than 3 months do not come under the new "residence management" system and hence are not issued a "stay (residence) card" or otherwise permitted to establish a residential address in a municipality and thereby become a "resident" and "citizen" of the municipality. General aliens who wish to establish a municipal residence require a permitted period of stay of at least 90 days.
The general "stay" sense of "zairyū" (在留) is represented in the official translations of expressions like "period of stay" (在留期間 zairyū kikan). The so-called "residence card" (在留カード zairyū kaado) has a line called "PERIOD OF STAY" on which the beginning and ending dates of the permitted period of stay are shown. Aliens who wish to extend their period of stay need to file an "Application for permission to renew (extend) period of stay" (在留期間更新許可申請 Zairyū kikan kōshin kyoka shinsei).
The original "wa-ga-kuni" (我が国) -- "our country" -- is morphed into English as "Japan" -- which shifts the 1st-person "we Japanese" stance of the original text to a neutral "3rd party" stance in the English text. Later versions of the Japanese text retain the 1st-person "wa-ga-kuni" reference to Japan.
The Korean version has 일본 (Ilbon). The Chinese versions (in both simplified and traditional script) get away without mentioning Japan at all -- by saying 在留外国人 -- "aliens staying in [Japan]" or "resident aliens" -- which is reminiscent of 在日外国人 -- "aliens in Japan" or "Japan-resident aliens". In context, 在留 obviates the need to specify either "wa-ga-kuni" or "Japan".
Obviously, though, it makes no sense to translate "wa-ga-kuni" as "our country" -- but then it makes no sense for Japan's legal bureaucrats to adopt the 1st person stance of the Japanese text -- which is likely to be read by the many aliens who speak and read only Japanese.
The term "minashi" (みなし) is the nominal-and nominal-attributive form of the verb "minasu" (見做す), which means to "regard" or to "deem" something as being something it actually isn't. A "deemed alien" is a national who is regarded as an alien for some specific legal reason. A "deemed business" is an economic activity that may not really be a business but is regarded as a business for tax or other purposes. Here, the "deemed re-entry permit system" is similarly a "de facto" system in the sense that -- while still being called a "re-entry permit system" -- most aliens who leave and re-enter Japan will no longer actually have to obtain permission to re-enter.
Later "Residency Management System" publicity
The Japanese text of the later publicity is slightly less bureaucratic than that of the earlier publicity. The presentation of information is less denser -- several shorter and lighter paragraphs in place of the single, long, heavy graph of the earlier publicity -- though both versions prominently -- and effectively -- feature the abolishment of the alien registration system in a final, short, standalone sentence.
The English text of the later publicity has been polished and proofed.
The following transcriptions of the Japanese and English text, slightly reformatted here, and the structural translation and commentary, are mine. The red highlighting is in the original text. The rose highlighting is mine.
Ministry of Justice website publicity
Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese
As retrieved on 6 July 2014
To All foreign nationals residing in Japan
Beginning on Monday, July 9, 2012
Start of a new residency
Point 1 「在留カード」が交付されます
What exactly is the new residency management system?
The aim of the new residency management system is to enable the Ministry of Justice to continuously keep information necessary for managing the residency of foreign nationals residing in Japan for the mid-to long-term with resident status, and ensure greater convenience for those foreign nationals.
The system will issue qualifying foreign nationals a resident card containing a portrait photo of the individual, basic personal information such as his/her name, his/her resident status and his/her currently allowed period of stay.
Moreover, because the new system will allow authorities to more accurately track resident status than with the previous system, it makes it possible to introduce measures that will improve the convenience of foreign nationals who legally reside in Japan, such as a maximum period of stay of five years instead of the previous three years, and a new reentry permit system that waives reentry permit formalities for foreign nationals who leave and reenter Japan within one year of the date of their original departure.
The current alien registration system will be abolished with the start of the new residency management system.
Point 1 A resident card will be issued
Merging alien and family registers
All publicity related to the new "Residency Management System" creates the impression that the Alien Registration System was "abolished". However, it continues to exist.
Functions of Alien Registration Law now divided between authorities
The control mechanisms of the Alien Registration Law were actually improved by clearly dividing the functions of the law between two authorities -- the national government represented by the Ministry of Justice -- and municipal governments represented by Japan's wards, cities, towns, and villages.
In the 1980s and 1990s, municipalities lost most of the authority originally delegated to them in alien registration matters. They continued to initiate and maintain the master records of aliens who registered as municipal residents, and they continued to issue Alien Registration Certificates and mediate changes in many of the particulars in the master records. But they no longer produced the certificates. And they no longer had the authority to deal with violations of the Alien Registration Law in their own way.
In other words, by 9 July 2012, when the Alien Registration System ended, municipal offices had become little more than local agents of the Immigration Bureau. In the process of computerizing records during the anti-fingerprint movement in the 1980s and adopting a laminated card in lieu of a paper booklet, the Immigration Bureau had gained control over the production of Alien Registration Certificates, and had also gained the right to directly investigate and take action against all violations of the Alien Registration Law.
Under the new Residency Management System, the resident-registration functions of alien registration were integrated into the Basic Resident Ledger system which previously had been only for Japanese. But the Immigration Bureau gained possession and control over basic alien records. Local governments no longer "mediate" the initiation and maintenance of such records. General aliens now deal directly with the Immigration Bureau in every matter related to their lives in Japan -- except when moving to another locality, in which case they notify the local government of their change of address.
The reason for this single exception in treatment reflects the fact that the residence registration function of the Alien Registration System was integrated into the Basic Resident Ledger system. Because aliens are now registered along with Japanese in a municipal Basic Resident Ledger, they are treated like Japanese when it comes to changing their address either within the same municipality, or between municipalities.
Basic "Japanese" and "alien" registers still segregated
In the meantime, the original family registers (戸籍 koseki) of Japanese are maintained by the municipality which has jurisdiction over the address of the honseki (本籍地 Honseki-chi) of the register -- apart from their local resident registers, which may be (and often are) in a different municipality. And master alien registers are now entirely in the possession of, and under the control and jurisdiction of, the Ministry of Justice.
Why merge systems?
Japanese and aliens alike are subjected to dual registration systems that emulate each other's functions -- to an extent -- while essentially segregating basic Japanese and alien records.
Japanese have two records -- one a "family register" (戸籍 koseki) alias "honseki" (本籍 honseki) -- the other a "Resident Register" (住民票 Jōminhyō). The family register -- the master record -- is maintained in what used to be a family's true "hometown" -- the locality where the family originated and lived, where practically everyone in the family was born and raised, and where many in the family also died and were buried. The resident register, however, is maintained in the municipality where an individual Japanese actually resides -- regardless of the locality of the person's koseki, and regardless of where other members of the person's family may be residing. Japanese legally residing overseas have no resident record but only a family register, which remains the legal foundation of their Japanese nationality.
Today, many Japanese are not born in the municipality of their family register. Many have never even lived in the municipality. The koseki is increasingly becoming an emotional vestige of earlier times when people were less mobile. The principles of "individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes" in the 1947 Constitution resulted in fundamental changes in Japan's family law, continues to focus on the nuclear families but no longer defines the sort of "corporate families" (家 ie) that characterized the past.
Today, young people and couples legally, and easily, severe ties register ties with their birth families to establish their own family registers. However, they too are apt to move to a municipality other than the one in which they established their family register. They establish a resident record in the new locality, and though they could transfer their family register to the new locality, they leave it in the former locality. Some status actions they can facilitate through from the municipal hall of the place of residence, but other status actions require procedures at the municipal hall of their family register (koseki, honseki) address.
For Japanese, all rights and duties of citizenship are defined by place of residence, not by the locality of their family register. It would make more administrative sense to allow an individual's family register to move with the individual, so long as the individual is in Japan. The sense of having a "hometown" (honseki) other than where one is legally domiciled for residential purposes would still be reflected on the register, since it would continue to show where one was born, and where one lived at different times, down to the present residence. The register would also, of course, show changes in status relations along the same timeline -- one's parents if known, siblings if any, spouse and/or children if any.
All this information is ultimately recorded on the "family register" while the "resident register" functions mainly as a source of rights and duties of citizenship primarily as a resident of a municipality, and secondarily as a resident of the prefecture to which the municipality belongs.
Alien records used to move with the alien. They used to be generated by the municipality in which an alien registered as a resident, pursuant to having a "status of residence" (在留資格 zairyūshikaku) [stay qualification] that at once permitted residence and obliged registration. The Immigration Bureau had authority over an alien's status of residence, but local registrars maintained the alien's residence record. And if the alien moved to another municipality, the record moved with the alien.
Under the new "[Alien] Residency Management System", an alien's basic residence record is now initiated and maintained by the Immigration Bureau. Municipalities creates a "Resident Register" (住民票 Jōminhyō) similar to those it creates for Japanese, based on information in Immigration Bureau records. And aliens directly notify local registrars of changes in address, and local registrars treat such changes in address the same as they do for Japanese -- except that, whereas Japanese are linked to family registers possibly under the control and jurisdiction of another municipality, aliens are linked with alien records under the control and jurisdiction of the Immigration Bureau.
Limitations of Japanese family registers
The problem is that, in the case of families consisting of members of Japanese and alien nationalities, there are multiple records and multiple jurisdictions. Some of the records are incompatible because they are differently constructed. Alien records are designed to accept a greater variety of name conventions and scripts, though improvements need to be made in their capacity to accommodate particulars of status relations peculiar to an alien's home-country family law. Japanese records tend to be rigid and inflexible when it comes to forms of names and permitted scripts, and varieties of status relations, which are generally limited to those defined in Japanese family law.
Japanese family registers don't make allowances for the varieties of names and scripts that are now possible in alien records. In the past, alien records showed no status relations with Japanese. They gradually accommodated such information, and now -- under the integrated "Resident Record" (住民票 Jōminhyō) system -- mixed nationality families can to some extent be represented as a family in the same way that a family consisting of only Japanese can be represented.
Family registers, though, continue to be subject to formal name, status, and script limitations that make it impossible to accurately represent alien names, or status relations other than those permitted by Japanese family law -- which means that some particulars, including parental relations, may not be recorded on a family register. To put it bluntly -- Japan's family register system remain a hostage to 19th-century standards that did not anticipate the need to accommodate the complexities of either domestic or international migration and mixing of people.
Common register design with a box for nationality
All individual records, including family registers, need to conform to a general and flexible design that includes a box for nationality.
- ID Numbers
- 1st ID number, for Japanese and aliens alike.
This is a master record number to identify an individual in all national and local Japanese records, including financial and medical records. The number will serve as a "key" to link all records concerning the individual in government data bases.
- 2nd ID number, for Japanese and aliens alike.
This is a subsidiary record number assigned by the government office or agency to a particular record in a particular data base.
- 1st ID number, for Japanese and aliens alike.
- Family name followed by all other names.
- a. The family name may consist of more than one name.
- b. A compound family name may be spaced or hyphened.
- c. Any Unicode script may be used,
- One box for family name and one box for all other names.
- Four fields for different scripts and forms of names
- 1st name field for original script of legal names.
- 2nd name field for a kana transcription of names.
- 3rd name field for an alphabetic transcription of names.
- 4th name field for form of name in official correspondence,
written in Japanese or alphabetic script.
- In an independent field, show history of name changes.
- List all nationalities a person is known to possess.
- a. For a Japanese, list Japanese first.
- b. For an alien, first list the nationality of the passport used to enter Japan or acquired at time of birth in Japan, or the foreign nationality of record if acquired in Japan for reason other than birth.
- c. For a stateless alien, after "Stateless" write in parentheses the name of the state responsible for the person's protection.
- In an independent field, show history of any legal actions concerning the person's acquisition of nationality other than at time of birth, or changes of nationality, including declarations of choice or renunciation, loss or recovery of nationality, and naturalization.
- In 1st address field, for both Japanese and aliens, show address in municipality where person is domiciled and registered as a resident; for Japanese, write "Overseas" if not residing in Japan.
- In 2nd address field, for Japanese not residing in Japan, show name of country of residence and addresses if known; for aliens, show most recent address in home country or other country if known.
- In an independent address field, show history of address changes.
- In 1st status box, for a Japanese write 国民 (Kokumin) [National]; for an alien, show the person's status of residence (在留資格 zairyūkaku) [stay qualification] or equivalent.
- In 2nd status box, for both Japanese and aliens, show any judicial actions that exempt the person from any legal duty or obligation.
- In 3rd status box, for both Japanese and aliens, show any judicial actions that disqualify the person from exercising any legal right or receiving any legal benefit.
- In an independent status field, show history of status changes.
- Other fields concerning at least the following matters
- Place and date of birth
- Parents names and places and dates of birth
- In an independent field, show particulars related to alliances or dissolutions of alliances of marriage or adoption, child custody agreements, agreements relating to fostering children or adults, and surrogacy contracts and the like, to the extent that such matters are part of a public record (i.e., a record not deemed private by a law or sealed by a court).