December 03, 2015
The Mormon "koseki" problem
So I was writing about Angel Beats! and that got me musing about infant baptism, about the same time that the Mormon church announced that the children of gay parents would not be eligible for baptism until they were legal adults.
As my brother quipped, "And yet the child of two heterosexual Satan-worshipping prostitutes would be?"
The first thing that occurred to me was that the Mormon church had reinvented Original Sin. Hey, kids, welcome to Limbo! "Limbo" isn't official Catholic doctrine. Apparently this is.
But the bigger question is why the church even bothered. Who thought this was a problem that needed solving? What, there were maybe five people in the entire world that such a policy would have otherwise applied to (before turning it into a cause célèbre)?
It struck me as the kind of rule-making engineered by a mid-level bureaucrat who panicked one day when a hypothetical raised by a local bishop clawed its way up the chain of command and he realized that they didn't have a form to handle it.
You see, the church has a koseki problem. Cultural and religious reasons aside, one reason gay marriage has made halting progress in Japan is for the same record-keeping reason.
The koseki tohon (family register) is the official census record in Japan, and the legal equivalent of a person's birth certificate. All major life events--birth, adoption, marriage, death--are recorded in the koseki. If it's not in the koseki, it didn't legally occur.
The Japan Times explains:
People without a family registry are ineligible for passports and driver's licenses, as well as such basic but critical services as public health insurance and national pension benefits. In addition, their lack of a legally valid identity leaves them open to a multitude of other potential problems.
The koseki is a patrilineal document as well as a genealogical record. Before privacy laws were enacted, private investigators, employers, and marriage brokers could peruse any person's koseki for evidence of disreputable fruit hanging in the family tree.
With its roots in medieval Japan and its first major revision back in 1872, with public access to koseki records only being restricted in 2008, the koseki system has adjusted slowly to modern times. Consider, for example, the following:
- When a couple marries, only one family name can appear on the koseki. Except in the case of adult adoption, the woman almost always gives up her maiden name.
- The child of a divorced woman who gave birth before legally remarrying will be listed on her previous husband's koseki.
- To gain custody, the child must be "abandoned" by his "legal" father and adopted by his biological father. This is one reason child adoption is rare in Japan.
Adult adoption, on the other hand, remains surprisingly common.
- Even more bizarrely, there are circumstances where the child doesn't end up on either parent's koseki and so legally ceases to exist.
As many as 10,000 mukoseki ("no koseki") Japanese have fallen through these cracks, children of Japanese citizens but non-persons in the country of their birth.
- And, of course, there's no effective way to deal with gay marriage, especially the child of two women (although for an eldest male, adult adoption becomes an interesting alternative).
A few progressive wards in Tokyo have carved out exceptions, but nothing approaching a national solution is on the horizon. (Keep in mind that Japan is just getting around to creating a social security numbering system and fax machines remain ubiquitous.)
So what does this have to do with the Mormon church? Unlike most faiths, the Mormon church keeps the equivalent of a koseki for every member (which is both weird and kinda scary). Like the koseki, this database is patrilineal in theology and structure.
And like the koseki, simply changing the values in a database field can't help but make a cultural statement, with a boatload of political implications in tow. Perversely, the kind of statements and implications that the Satan-worshipping prostitute avoids.
Here is where that mukoseki status serves to resolve the church's gay marriage dilemma. No koseki? The kid doesn't exist. Neither do the parents. Not our problem.
Frankly, the church should borrow from the Amish and not baptize anybody until they're eighteen. Oh, and I'd tell the Japan census bureau that the clarity of the Jewish matrilineal system has much to recommend for it.