Marriage in Japan
By Edward Phillips
All marriages in Japan must follow Japanese law. This may sound obvious, but it has a lot of important implications. All JET Programme participants should be of marriageable age, so I won’t bother with that aspect. The only other main thing to keep in mind that might delay or complicate your marriage is that a woman cannot get married within 6 months of a divorce. This is to avoid confusion in regards to the identity of the father of a child born within a relatively short time after the divorce.
The engagement process is fairly straight-forward. After the proposal, the man and woman go to talk with the woman’s parents. In this conversation the man asks for the woman’s hand in marriage (generally accompanied with a lot of bowing). The father generally takes the lead and asks a lot of questions. Some of the questions I was asked included which country we were planning on living in, as well as various questions about my life insurance. This last one may freak you out a little bit, as you might be wondering if your in-laws are planning to kill you and collect. This is, however, one of the many cultural aspects that may be different from your home country. In Japan, most of the father’s questions are more focused on the practical “How will you provide for my daughter and grandchildren?” question rather than the emotional aspects that you may be more familiar with. Once the parents agree, the engagement is official. If your fiancé is from a small town, there may be many obstacles that pop up. In my case, my wife is from a small town on the edge of Oda, and there was a big worry about gossiping that the neighbors would do if they knew that one of the children of their town was marrying a foreigner. So, in short, if your significant other is from a small town, expect a lot of stereotyping, gossiping, and outright prejudice. It will pass quickly, though.
Now, to the biggest part of the marriage process: paperwork. Japanese law requires all foreigners marrying in Japan to prepare a sworn Affidavit of Competency to Marry, affirming they are legally free to marry, from their own country’s embassy or consulate in Japan. As an American, I was able to download a blank affidavit form from the American Consulate General’s webpage (http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-7114a.html). This form has two parts. One is to be written in English, the other in Japanese. This form then has to be taken into your country’s consulate and notarized (make sure you write the kanji correctly, or you might have a funny story to tell the government office workers when you turn your papers in). For Americans it costs $50, and they accept yen as well. In the case of the American consulate, you’ll need to make an appointment. The above website has information to make that appointment. In addition to the affidavit, you’ll need to fill out the marriage application, or kon-in todoke (婚姻届). This must be filled out in Japanese. It also requires the signatures (or hanko in the case of Japanese, Chinese, or Korean nationals) of 2 witnesses. The witnesses can be of any nationality, but must be over 20 years old. If your fiancé is Japanese, they will have to get an affidavit to marry as well, but they can easily get one at their local City Hall. At this point, you can now have the ceremony. These are pretty costly. I had a very simple wedding, but with all the things we needed to do and get it still cost over 200,000 yen (including a simple, family-only reception). If your fiancé is Japanese, you’ll probably be expected to get professional wedding photos before the wedding, and in both Western style wedding clothing and in kimono. The clothes can be rented from a variety of shops, so look around. After the ceremony, take the affidavits and kon-in todoke to the local municipal government office and submit them there. Congratulations! You’re now married!
Now I’d like to give just a few words of warning. First, check with the municipal government office where you plan to submit your papers before going. Local laws may require more than just the affidavits and kon-in todoke. For example, they could also ask for a copy of your birth certificate (and a translation in Japanese). My next word of warning is to make sure you know how to get a copy of your marriage certificate (kon-in todoke jurishomeisho 婚姻届受理証明書). For religious reasons, I submitted my papers at the office in downtown Fukuoka, and, living in Izumo, it takes a lot of time and effort to get a copy.
The final step to the process is to get a copy of your marriage certificate (now you know why you want to make sure you know how to get one), translate it into your native language, and get the translation notarized at your country’s consulate. I’m not sure about other countries, but in the case of American citizens, your marriage will be recognized as valid as long as you have the marriage certificate and notarized translation. If you have any questions, contact or look at the website for your country’s nearest consulate. Congratulations!
Having a Baby in Japan
In this section I’d like to focus on what you can expect your child’s birth in Japan, rather than the paperwork as I did for marriages. You’ll have to register your child’s birth with your country’s consulate, so make sure to check what you need to bring with them first. For American citizens, or anyone who’s interested in what kind of things might be asked of you, here’s a link to the American consulate: http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-crba-checklist.html
To illustrate what it’s like to have a child in Japan I’ll use my own experience. When my wife got pregnant shortly after we got married, we had to choose where she would have the baby. The most common birthing locations in Japan is at an OB/GYN clinic. We searched online using a site especially for pre- and postnatal mothers called Women’s Park (I don’t know the Japanese spelling, but it’s in katakana). We found one we liked and started going there. There were classes that talked about what happens during the birth, when to come in to the clinic, what the husband can do to help, etc. The clinic we went to required them, and they hosted them for free, but that’s not the case for most clinics.
For a long time it was the same basic routine. We’d go in for a checkup one every month. Then as my wife entered the third trimester the visits went to once every two weeks. Many countries count a pregnancy as 9 months, but in Japan they count it until 10 (4 weeks per month, with a total of 40 weeks). The last month is called ringetsu (臨月), and the visits became weekly. One thing to note is that we needed to ask the doctor what the gender of the baby was, as he didn’t tell us otherwise or ask if we wanted to know.
When my wife’s water broke we called and went to the clinic. From what I have been told, most clinics put you in a room with multiple people in it, but some (such as the one we went to) had private rooms. We were shown to the room and asked to wait. A nurse or the midwife on duty came periodically to check on my wife, but there was also a nurse call that we were told to use any time. In the morning the doctor checked on my wife. When she was dilated enough, we moved to the delivery room. The clinic we went to didn’t use the special bed/chairs for delivery, but rather used the mother’s preferred method. In our case, my daughter was born on a futon.
Two midwives and an assistant delivered my daughter, and the doctor came up and checked the baby. I don’t know if that’s the norm, or just what our clinic did. Every clinic varies in a lot of what they do so check on that before deciding where to go. An interesting fact that I learned shortly before the birth of my baby is that many Japanese men are not in the delivery room for the birth, but prefer to wait outside. If you or your spouse plans on being in the room during the delivery, make sure the clinic knows and allows that. Also, some clinics allow the husband to stay overnight for free (but usually don’t serve him any food) or let the husband stay overnight for an additional price (but will provide meals). Some clinics, however, don’t allow anyone to stay overnight with the mother and child.
One of the biggest differences I noticed between my country and Japan is after the birth. In America the mother leaves the hospital within a few days if there are no complications. In Japan the mother and child generally stay at the clinic for about a week. If you are the husband and your wife is Japanese, there’s a good chance that she will then go back and stay at her parents’ house for a while (in my case about a month).
Once your wife and child are back home, you need to register your child at the local government office. Please note that if the other parent of your child is Japanese and they don’t have the same last name as you, your child’s last name will be their last name in Japan, period. The Japanese government only recognizes a family and given name of any of its citizens, so if your child’s other parent is Japanese, your child will officially only have a family name and a given name while in Japan. To change this so that their name is different in your home country, please refer to any information from your country’s consulate. All that’s left is to register your child’s birth at your country’s consulate. Congratulations on your child’s birth!
Edward Phillips (firstname.lastname@example.org) became an ALT on the JET Programme in 2010.