Japan's top court prioritizes protection of children born out of wedlock

JAPAN - The latest decision by the Supreme Court is a historic judgement of unconstitutionality that took changes in Japanese family values into consideration.

The top court's Grand Bench reached the decision Wednesday, finding that a provision in the Civil Code stipulating that the inheritance share for a child born to unmarried parents shall be one half of that of a child born in wedlock violates the Constitution, which guarantees "equality under law."

The decision said that reasonable grounds to make such a distinction have been lost.

In 1995 the Supreme Court judged the same Civil Code provision to be constitutional. We think the top court reversed the decision because it seriously considered changes in circumstances surrounding children born out-side of marriage.

According to the decision, the Supreme Court listed conditions to be taken into consideration, including national traditions, social circumstances and public sentiment, in deciding the nation's inheritance system. On that basis, the Grand Bench said these conditions change with the times, so the rationality of the system should be constantly reviewed.

What the Supreme Court said is quite natural if we consider the point that the Civil Code is a law closely connected to the daily lives of the people.

In recent years, the number of children born out of wedlock has been increasing. The term "shinguru maza" (single mother) has taken root in society. So-called de facto marriages are not uncommon now and the social view to perceive children born out of wedlock as different has probably withered considerably.

In residence certificate and family register notations describing relationships to the head of the household or parents, the distinction of a child born out of wedlock has already been abolished.

In major Western countries such as the United States and Europe, the abolition of inequalities in inheri-tance has progressed considerably. Japan is the only major advanced nation that still has discriminatory regulation.

The Supreme Court's unconstitutionality judgment was made in line with the current international legal climate.

Equality for all children

The distinguishing point of the latest decision is that it strongly reflects the belief that protection of the rights of children born out of wedlock should be considered a top priority.

A Cabinet Office opinion poll taken last year revealed that 61 per cent of Japanese think children born out of wedlock should not be treated disadvantageously under the law.

The Supreme Court said in the judgment that children born out of wedlock should not be at a disadvantage as a result of their parents not being married, a situation the children had no control over. We think many people will accept the decision without dis-comfort.

The provision of inheritance inequalities was made during the Meiji period and passed down to the current Civil Code, which was revised after World War II. The underlying reason was the traditional view attaching great importance to statutory marriages.

It is undeniable that the provision to set the share in inheritance of children born out of wedlock at one half of that of children born in wedlock has consequently helped to create a discriminatory environment for children born out of wedlock.

Given the Supreme Court's decision, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, "It's a matter of course to make legal arrangements." The government plans to submit a bill to revise the Civil Code to an extraordinary Diet session at the earliest.

We urge that the law should be swiftly revised.