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Historic Koseki - Official Japanese Translation

We recently had the opportunity to translate an historic koseki, or Japanese family register.

 Translation Japan: Japanese Family Register Koseki
Japanese classical, modern & number character form used in the same document

Normally, family register translations are run of the mill stuff for experienced, official Japanese translators. However, this koseki spanned close to 200 years covering some of the most important periods in modern Japanese history, from the late Tokugawa Shogunate through the Meiji Restoration periods.


A koseki is a Japanese family registry. Japanese law requires all Japanese households (known as "ie") to report births, acknowledgements of paternity, adoptions, disruptions of adoptions, deaths, marriages and divorces of Japanese citizens to their local authority, which compiles such records encompassing all Japanese citizens within their jurisdiction. Marriages, adoptions and acknowledgements of paternity become legally effective only when such events are recorded in the koseki. Births and deaths become legally effective as they happen, but such events must be filed by family members. (source: koseki)

This Japanese family register was seriously dated, to say the least. We needed to employ the services of kanji character experts -a retired Japanese language teacher who also happens to be a leading expert on northern Japanese dialects, and a university professor- to literally decipher the documents since they were handwritten in characters that are no longer used in modern Japanese.

And, that is what made these family register documents so fascinating.

Deciphering the kanji characters revealed a society experiencing upheaval, in deep flux as these periods in Japanese history are known for. Below follow a few fascinating details that emerged from this koseki translation:

  • Classical, modern & number character forms are used side-by-side, suggestion that the whole country had not fully adopted, or had adopted but not yet moved over to, the modern Japanese writing system. It is not hard to image the disruption to society at large of different writing systems existing side-by-side. See the image above for an example of the different characters used in these koseki documents.
  • Discrimination towards females was very evident. For example, when women transferred (through marriage) into a new family register, they were referred to not by name but as, for example, “the second daughter of John Doe, Head of Family at Street Number Some Village”.
  • A class system was still very much in place until the late Meiji Restoration period, which was recorded in one’s family register.

The family’s ancestors emigrated from Japan more than a century ago and requested this koseki translation to discover their roots.

Want to investigate your ancestry? Or, simply need personal documents translated Japanese-to-English for legal purposes? Contact Tokyo based Official Japanese Translation Services

About the Author
Ivan Vandermerwe is the CEO of SAECULII YK, owner of Certified Translation Services Japan, Tokyo. Visit SAECULII for the latest professional case studies, articles and news on Japanese Translation Service

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