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Gender Biased Divorce Law Under Review
TOKYO, Apr 24 (IPS) - The birth of her baby four years ago was supposed to be a happy occasion for Masae Ito, 41. But she and her second husband were in for a nasty surprise at the registry office.
''I was told flatly by ward officials that the baby (legally) belonged to the husband I had divorced almost a year earlier. I could only gasp in disbelief,'' said Ito, a plucky woman who now manages a small non-profit organisation geared to support mothers in similar situations.
Ito is currently working hard to have changes made to the archaic Civil Code law that prevents women from remarrying for six months after divorce and also prohibits babies born within 300 days of the divorce from being recorded under the family register of their biological fathers.
Only through a special court procedure, whereby the former husband testifies that the child is not his, can the problem be rectified. Husbands, however, are not covered under this law.
Japanese law calls for families to have family registers apart, from individual birth certificates. The register records the background of each family member and is maintained by the householder -- usually the husband.
Changing the contentious civil code -- established in 1898 to ensure a child is not illegitimate at a time when DNA testing did not exist -- is proving difficult.
Gender experts point to the ongoing debate in the Japanese Diet (parliament) on making a long overdue change to a legal stipulation that no longer makes sense as yet another example of official resistance to gender equality.
‘'The issue of not accepting the father of a child on the grounds that the mother was married to another man before, is beyond logic. The difficulty to change this irrelevant law reflects the desire on the part of conservative politicians to protect Japan's male-dominated society,'' Fujiko Sakakibara, a lawyer and gender expert, told IPS.
A bone of contention for conservative politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is that abolishing the law would break family values by encouraging divorce and possibly increase the number of children born out of wedlock.
Recent remarks by senior politicians referring to women in this situation as ‘'committing adultery'' have caused bitter resentment. Moves to soften the old law by accepting DNA testing or a doctor's certificate showing the date of conception or reducing to 100 days the wait for women to remarry, have only been met by even more resistance by activists.
‘'The whole case is a shame on Japan. It shows how Japan ignores the rights of women to start married lives afresh after divorce. Moreover, children are denied their right to register their biological father and mother. Laws take precedence over the happiness of women and children,'' says Yoko Sakamoto, editor of M-Net, an Internet publication that focuses on gender issues.
Indeed, Ito, who has advised more than a hundred women who grapple with this predicament, says many of them suffer mental anguish when they have to approach the courts to settle with their former husbands.
‘'There are cases where women are the victim of domestic violence and do not want to meet their former husbands ever. In other cases, the wounds from divorce can be still raw and it can be nerve wracking for women to be forced to meet and appeal to their former husbands for permission to register their new offspring under their biological fathers,'' she explained.
As a result of these difficult stipulations, activists have found hundreds of unregistered children in Japan. There is no official count because of the lack of concrete statistics, but cases recorded in the Family Courts, says Ito, indicate there are at least 3,500 children per year who go unregistered.
One consequence of the contentious code is that unregistered children cannot apply for national benefits or have a passport issued. A woman, quoted in the local media, said her new baby was born prematurely and does not have a family register. Both her second husband and she worry about medical bills.
However, last week, the government announced that it has decided to issue passports from May to children not registered due to the provisions of the code relating to recently divorced mothers. The gesture is a sign that the resistance by mothers is paying off.
Ito's own case is regarded as a landmark in the fight for equality. Rather than plead her case in court, she lobbied for help from politicians.
‘'I met with sympathetic politicians who introduced me to officials at the justice ministry. After long arguments I was allowed to register my child under a new family register without going to Court. But the law itself remained intact which is why I started my grass root movement,'' she said.
Activists hope to push the change before the current session of the Diet ends in June. Already the ruling LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito party, are discussing the matter to usher in a new legislation.
‘'We have to work step by step to change things and make Japan a better place for women,'' said Sakamoto. (END/2007)
Japan Considers Amending Pacifist Constitution
By Catherine Makino
30 April 2007
Voice of America
After years of talking about it, Japan's governing party has moved ahead this month with plans to revise the country's constitution. The changes would expand the role of Japan's military - a significant break from its post-World War II pacifist era. And as Catherine Makino reports from Tokyo, that is giving rise to fear that Japan could return to its militarist past.
Since Japan's pacifist constitution was imposed by U.S. occupiers after the country's defeat in World War II, the Japanese have held Article Nine sacrosanct. In it, Japan forever renounced war and the threat of force as a means to settle international disputes. It limits Japan's military to a purely self-defensive role and bans any offensive capabilities. Article Nine was meant to show Japan was breaking with its imperialist era when it brutally invaded and conquered swaths of East Asia in the early 20th Century.
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, center, stands with Japanese seamen on the deck of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force refueling ship Hamana which was dispatched to Middle East to support the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, Sunday, 29 April 2007 in Abu Dhabi
But a new generation of leaders, led by Shinzo Abe - the first prime minister born after the Second World War - backs sweeping reform of the constitution and specifically Article Nine.
Proponents of the changes, such as Osamu Nishi, professor of constitutional law at Komazawa University in Tokyo, say Japan needs to be able to project force commensurate with its economic power.
"Japan is not the same country as it was 60 years ago," he said. "It has become a big country with a responsibility to keep world peace."
Opponents of revision say it would bring a return to militarism and "a dark period of history." They argue that the pacifist clause has kept the country out of war and allowed Japan to prosper.
The Self-Defense Force has expanded over the years, and now has 240,000 members. Although Japanese soldiers have not been sent into combat, Tokyo dispatched about 600 non-combat soldiers to Iraq to work on reconstruction projects in southern Iraq since 2004. But the deployment was unpopular at home and the ground troops were withdrawn.
Nishi says such work does not mean Japan would be returning to militarism.
"Of course, in order not to return to militarism of the past, it is necessary for the civilian [sic] and government to control the military forces," Nishi says.
But behind the general talk of the need for Japan to play a larger role in the world is another argument: that Japan must compete more strongly with major neighboring powers such as China.
Law professor, Pema Gyalpo, of Toin University in Yokohama is a constitutional advisor to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He says a change in the military's role is necessary to meet any threat caused by China's growing military might.
"Because in recent years it has been very obvious that China is increasing their military budget by double digits, and this is very great concern for the Japanese," Gyalpo says.
Gyalpo also believes that if Tokyo wants to become a global player and a member of the United Nations Security Council, it has to take a more active military role.
Such views may have the current government's backing, but proponents of change have a long wait ahead. The lower house of parliament passed a bill on April 13 setting out procedures for a national referendum on whether or not the constitution should be amended. The referendum could be held three years from now.
In the meantime, public support for constitutional change is declining. Surveys over the past 15 years by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily newspaper, show that those favoring revision consistently outnumber those who oppose them. But the percentage of those in favor has dropped for three years in a row.
But some experts, such as Gyalpo, say while there is no pressing need to revise the constitution immediately, there is short-term political benefit for Mr. Abe to bring the issue to public debate.
"Well, when he became prime minister he said that one of his top priorities is to change the constitution and I think that's what he is trying to do," Gyalpo says. "Secondly, the opposition party is attacking him for the growing gap between the rich and poor, and also the pension issue for the citizens, elderly citizens, so that is why Abe is trying to focus the coming election in July on the constitution."
The constitution was drafted by the United States when it occupied Japan following Japan's defeat in World War Two. The document reduced the formerly supreme emperor to a symbolic figurehead and gave control of imperial palaces and assets to the Japanese parliament.
It established democracy in Japan, creating political parties and elections. Political power previously had been concentrated in the hands of a small group of government leaders who answered only to the emperor.
Freedom of speech, of religion, and human rights were also included in the 1947 constitution, as were "gender equality," the right to vote, and the right to own property.
But the more conservative elements in the LDP point out that the Americans imposed the constitution on Japan and that it therefore lacks true legitimacy in the eyes of many Japanese.
How far constitutional change should go remains a concern not just in Japan, but also across a region still wary of Japan's militaristic past.