Registration laws in Japan

From territoriality to nationality

By William Wetherall

First posted 10 March 2006
Last updated 18 April 2009

Registration before nationality Headcount imperatives | Affiliation as allegiance | Registers as territory | The locus of nationality

Registration before nationality

Registration comes before nationality in two senses.

First, Japan's first Nationality Law, which evolved during the Meiji period and came into effect from 1899, rests on a foundation of centuries of household registration practices and family law.

Second, no one acquires Japanese nationality without registration in a family register affiliated with a municipality that is part of Japan's sovereign dominion. And loss of nationality means removal from such a register.

The second point is particularly important, for Japanese nationality is never automatically acquired. One becomes a national of Japan, at time of birth through rules based on lineage or place of birth, or later in life through legitimation or naturalization, only upon timely registration.

In other words, nationality in Japan is all about family registration. And this article, and those grouped under it, are placed before the articles on nationality, precisely because an understanding of the long gestation and birth of Japan's Family Register Law is essential to an understanding of the meaning of nationality in Japan -- which was not truly a nation until 1868, and did not legally define its nationality until 1899.

Understanding the territorial character of household registers in Japanese law is also essential to understanding why Taiwanese, Karafutoans, and Koreans as Chosenese gained and lost Japanese nationality. The territoriality of national affiliation also explains why Ryukyuans became Japanese during the Meiji period, and why they were not Japanese during the period the government of Okinawa was under the administration of the United States.


Headcount imperatives

The collective imperatives of the human condition are seen in all manner of groupings, from couples and families, to villages, clans, nations, and even multinational coalitions. While somewhat differently motivated, parents, village heads, and sovereigns share the need to know how many heads they need to feed or tax.

Demographic records of various kinds have existed for as long as there have been systems of writing. According to one of Japan's earliest historical chronicles, registers existed from no later than the middle of the 6th century for at least some households, including those made up of Hata, Aya, and other migrants from the peninsula who came to Yamato and were settled in various provinces.

Household registration for the purpose of allocating land for cultivation and levying taxes became more systematic by the middle of the 7th century. And by the start of the 8th century, such record keeping had become a matter of statute law.

Over the next several centuries, registers evolved into more comprehensive records of vital events, including birth, death, marriage, and divorce, maintained by household. From the 17th century, such records came to be kept at local temples, partly to ascertain that no family had become Christian.

The present Family Register Law dates from 1872, when household registration was consolidated under secular local governments nationwide. Since register matters generally followed customary family law, articles related to family law in the Civil Code, which was not enacted until the 1890s, were essentially codifications of the standards of family registration practices.

The Nationality Law of 1899, too, not only rests on foundations of family law, but depends on the Family Register Law, since family registers also serve as national registers. In other words, one cannot be a national of Japan unless one is duly registered in a family register affiliated with a municipality that is part of Japan's sovereign dominion.

Consequently, registration is the only legal proof of nationality. And counting Japanese heads in a census is merely a matter of counting persons who are members of family registers.


Affiliation as allegiance

The overarching purpose of the earliest household registers -- other than to facilitate headcounts by household for purposes of keeping track of family relationships, and to determine field allocations and taxation, if not also at times corvee labor -- was to establish a person's status in terms of the locality to which a person belonged by virtue of being a member of a household register affiliated with the locality. A person's allegiance was then due whoever ruled or governed the locality.

A person domiciled in a certain village would be regarded as affiliated first with a household in the village, then with the village, and then with the increasing larger territories within which the village itself was nested. The hierarchy of territories defined the jurisdictions of a hierarchy of authorities, from the head of household to the head of the village and the governor of the district in which the village was located, to the lord of the domain or province within which the household, village, and district were nested, and finally to the sovereign of Yamato or Japan, who claimed the domain or province as part of the court's dominion.

In this sense affiliation meant, first and foremost, allegiance -- a sense of duty and responsibility toward someone higher in the chain of authority -- from the head of the family to the sovereign of the country -- in return, of course, for the protection and benevolence that were regarded as the fruits of loyalty. This is an essentially universal definition of allegiance, whether to a political authority or to a deity.


Registers as territory

While it may seem obvious that affiliation based on the locality of a household register is territorial, it is important to recognize that the register itself is part and parcel of the locality. That is, as the locality goes, so goes the registers. s are themselves regarded as part and parcel of the locality which territorial -- and, in fact, represent demographic territory. status based on affiliation is also territorial. While Since allegiance based on territorial affiliation, Since affiliation is matter of territorial affiliation, and affiliation dictated allegiance as affiliation and allegiance the territoriality of affiliation, hence of allegiance -- the manner in which the source of one's allegiance is taken to be the locality of registration. If the past, when the locality with jurisdiction over a household became part of another locality, district, or even province, then the members of the household were expected to redirect their loyalties to the new hierarchy of authority.

In Japan today, too, legal status, for Japanese and aliens alike, is essentially territorial, and begins with local affiliation. The centering of affiliation on the locality of registration has its roots in the earliest chapters of Yamato history. It also happens to conform with present-day international private law.

In other words, Japanese law today rests on a foundation of Yamato practices that defined allegiance as affiliation with the local territory in which one is settled and registered. The territoriality of personal affiliation, hence allegiance, is clearly seen when entire localities, or even national territories, change their territorial affiliations.

Prefectures and municipalities

In the past, when a village changed hands in terms of who was considered the ruler of the region, the villagers were expected to be as loyal to the new ruler as to the old. Since the start of the Meiji period, numerous localities have found themselves affiliated with one prefecture one day and another prefecture the next. The prefectural flags of municipal halls and schools would change.

While today's prefectural borders are stable, the borders of municipalities remain subject to radical redefinition as villages and towns are annexed by existing cities or merge into new cities.

Taiwan, Karafuto, and Chosen

Japan's gain and loss of Taiwan, Karafuto, and Korea as Chōsen represent even more striking examples of the territoriality of affiliation and how changes of territorial affiliation affect subjecthood and expected allegiance. Japanese subjecthood and nationality was gained and lost by people considered domiciled in Taiwan, Karafuto, or Chōsen through the agency of changes in the national affiliation of these territories.

When affiliated with Japan's sovereign territory, people primarily domiciled in Taiwan, Karafuto, and Chōsen were Japanese. All such people lost their Japanese nationality when these territories formally ceased being part of Japan on 28 April 1952.


Okinawa represents a case of temporary change of territorial affiliation. The fact that the United States administered Okinawa under a UN mandate, which recognized Japan's residual sovereignty over the territory, does not change the fact that, during its American years, Okinawa was not part of Japan, and Okinawans were not Japanese.

However, the moment Okinawa reverted to Japan in 1972, it again became a prefecture of Japan, and all inhabitants with Okinawan family registers became Japanese nationals. Okinawans were suddenly subjects of Japanese law, as were aliens on the islands -- and their heads were counted as such in Japan's 1975 national census.

Moreover, the government and people of Okinawa were suddenly obliged to recognize the authority of Japanese law, and to otherwise accommodate themselves to their new status. Such are the effects of the territoriality of affiliation on allegience.


The territoriality of nationality

The origin of Japan's family register system goes back to the need to count heads, mainly for purposes of land allocation and taxation. The unit for headcounts was taken to be the "mouth" () through which a head was fed, and the "door" () or household in which the mouth of the head got fed.

Being recorded as a "mouth" affiliated with a certain "door" in a certain village made one a member of the village population. One's status within the household -- defined by sex, age, and relations based on descent including sibling order or on alliances or marriage or adoption -- also determined the set of duties and privileges that came with membership in the household.

When, entering the Meiji period, Japan found it necessary to define its nation by nationality, the easiest and arguably most logical legal criterion was to equate nationality with affiliation based on membership in a family register in a municipality that was part of Japan's sovereign dominion. Such an equation of nationality with territorial affiliation also favorably comported with practices in most other countries.

Thus it came to be that Japanese nationality, while typically acquired through a Japanese parent at time of birth, is essentially a mark of affiliation with a territory that is part of Japan's sovereign dominion. The primary proof of membership in Japan's nation is not descent, but possession of a household register affiliated with a village, town, or city that is part of Japan's sovereign dominion.

In other words, one becomes a national of Japan through registration as someone who is principally domiciled in a municipality of Japan. Come census time, people residing in Japan are counted or not as part of Japan's nation according to whether they have a principle domicile register in Japan. All others are regarded as aliens.