UPDATE: Trials in Bureaucracy, i.e. The Start of a New Adventure; or, Where in the World is Tamara Latham Sprinkle?

Generally speaking, I try to keep my work and private life separate – especially since I’ve started freelancing. However, there are times that the two intersect and it becomes necessary to reveal some personal circumstances in a more public arena.

The Start of a New Adventure

With that little caveat, I have an announcement to make. I am in the process of moving to Belgium for at least the next three years, as my husband got a job there. This possibility of relocating and starting the next adventure was one of the reasons I began freelancing.

Of course, any portable freelance translation and editing work will be moving with me, just completed in the CET rather than the CST time zone. In the long run I’ll join Belgian translators’ associations and be able to go to conferences in Europe.

Moving is a big process, and an international move is even more so. I appreciate your patience as I get situated.

Photo by slon_dot_pics on Pexels.com

Trials in Bureaucracy; or, Where in the World is Tamara Latham Sprinkle?

There is one more very important aspect of this plan, related to my business and Belgian red tape for non-EU nationals. Because I am going as the non-EU spouse of an EU citizen, we’re unable to apply for my residency until he has officially moved there, and the Embassy recommends applying from my nation of origin.

Practically speaking, this means that I will temporarily be in Belgium from the end of September to the end of November and then I’ll need to return to the USA without my husband to apply to reunite with him and to set up myself as a freelancer (registration is required to continue freelancing in Belgium).

While government bureaucracy has a habit of taking much longer than it should, if everything goes smoothly when we first relocate to the country and I apply immediately once I get back, it seems that I should be able to go to Belgium semi-permanently in January or February of next year.

On a personal note, after already experiencing a long distant relationship and a similar process to be able to get married, it will be strange being separated again. The reality that – while unlikely – you could be denied being able to stay with your significant other is a latent stress that I know too well.

I’m slowly learning more about this new immigration system and complicated bureaucracy, which I may include in my next article about translation and immigration law, an area of the law that, for various personal reasons, I follow the closest. It may take a while until I have the time to work on the next blog.

But until then, thank you for reading this slightly personal message; and greetings from wherever in the world I happen to be.

The Marriage Break Clause: International Divorce in Translation

Continuing the legal translation series, it seems fitting to discuss a topic that overlaps with both the family registry in Japan (i.e. 戸籍 koseki) and contracts. While I admit my views on this are neither romantic nor religious (nor of the kind that my husband enjoys hearing), marriage is simply a relationship bound by a legal contract, and as such, it contains a break clause: namely, an annulment or divorce. Divorce in Japan, and particularly in the United States, is a complicated and emotional process, made even more so when language barriers and societal differences in laws and social customs are involved. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between divorce in Japan and the USA and the role of a translator or interpreter within this process.

Divorce Statistics

Divorce is not uncommon in either Japan nor the United States of America. In my own country people throw around the phrase “half of marriages end in divorce”, often with a pejorative connotation indicating the breakdown of so-called “family values”, while in Japan the fact that one in three married couples get divorced, a rate not far behind the United States, has gotten more attention to the point of being a topic of discussion by quasi-celebrities on variety shows. While both general trends and societal attitudes towards divorce can be observed in these approximate figures and the tone in which they’re presented, government statistics provide a better source for comparing divorce trends in the USA and Japan, which share an overarching pattern.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, there were 207,000 divorces in Japan in 2017 with 1.6 divorces per 1000 of the population, which has been declining since its peak of 2.3 in 2002. Meanwhile in the United States, according to the CDC, the were a total of 787,251 divorces or 2.9 per 1000 of the population in the United States in 2017, down from 4.0 in 2000 and 2001. However, it is meaningful to note in the comparison of these divorce rates that the 2017 marriage rate was 4.9 per 1000 in Japan compared to 6.9 in the United States, both of which are slowly declining. To put it simply, both marriage, which is necessary to file for divorce, and divorce are currently in gradual decline both Japan and the USA.

Divorce Procedures

While divorce is common in both the United States and Japan, the procedures and legal framework are quite different in the two countries. This changes what documents require translation and what venues require an interpreter. Foreign residents can get divorced in their country of residence, but in doing so they must follow the procedures of that country, which necessitates the translation of key documents (i.e the Divorce Petition (離婚申請書) and accompanying documents in the USA or the 離婚届 (Divorce Registration) in Japan, as well as the Marriage Certificate or 婚姻届 ).

One major difference is that in the “litigious country of the United States” (《起訴ずきの国》アメリカ ), as Attorney Michiko Ito describes it in her book 「アメリカ駐在員のための法律常識 Amerika chuuzaiin no tame no houritsu joushiki」(Practical Law for Japanese Businessmen in America), both parties must appear in court and the divorce cannot be finalized without the approval of a judge. As the USA has found that a hearing is invalid if the defendant cannot understand English, the court must provide an interpreter for Non-English Speaking (NES) or Limited English Proficiency (LEP) petitioner or defendant. Meanwhile, one major difference in Japan is the relevance of the Family Registry, a multi-purpose document explained in a previous post. If one party is of Japanese nationality, whether residing in the USA or Japan, or is married to a Japanese national or a foreigner, they must update the family registry, including translating any required official documents for evidence, once the couple has completed divorce procedures and has finalized the divorce, regardless of the jurisdiction.

Divorce Procedures in Japan

In Japan, the Domestic Relations Case Procedure Act (家事事件手続法 )contains the laws that govern divorce procedures. The divorce must be mutual (i.e. not contested) and the couple must come to an agreement about the distribution of property(資産分与), child custody (親権), child support(養育費), and settlement or consolation money(慰謝料)before it’s finalized. The process puts more emphasis on salvaging the relationship and cooperation.

How complicated this is depends on the type of divorce, whether they have children, and whether one spouse had an affair, which necessitates consolation money. Joint custody ends with the marriage and typically custody goes to the mother, but that is negotiable along with how much child support the other spouse should contribute and whether or not to split assets 50/50 or 40/60 etc.

There are four types of divorce in Japan, which range from being mainly administrative procedures to court mandated decisions.

  1. Divorce by mutual agreement(協議離婚)According to Attorney Umezawa in his article on the Divorce Lawyer Navigator website, about 90% of divorces in Japan are this type, in which the couple agree to divorce, regardless of the grounds for the divorce, and fill out the Divorce Registration (離婚届)to submit it to their local municipal office.
  2. Divorce by mediation (調停離婚)If the couple can’t agree on the details of the divorce or agree to divorce, the next step is mediation through a court-appointed family councilor. This step is detailed under the Principle of Conciliation First in Article 255 of the Domestic Relations Case Procedure ( 家事事件手続法255条 調停前置主義 ), with the only exception to this step being cases of domestic violence. It takes two to four weeks to get an appointment with the councilor and the process can take anywhere from a month to a year. Legal representatives of either party are allowed to participate in the mediation sessions and mediation may lead to the couple staying married or making concessions about the details of the divorce.
  3. Divorce by the decision of family court(審判離婚)If the couple cannot come to an agreement through a family councilor, the case enters family court as detailed in Article 284 and the judge determines an equitable solution. Although according to Mr. Hagihara at Legal Mall, only about 0.1% of divorces are settled in this way.
  4. Divorce by the decision of a district court (裁判離婚)However, if one party disagrees with the family court decision or finds it inequitable, the case enters a district court in a longer evidence-based court process.
A sample of the「離婚届」Divorce Registration
(Photo from the Hijemi Rikon website)

While the overall process is easier, there are varying points in which a translator or interpreter, or an attorney, may be necessary. If one party were to get re-married in another country or needed to prove their marital status (like for immigration), a translation of the Divorce Registration would be required. In the case of an international marriage, in which one party is not fluent enough in Japanese to comprehend legalese, then an interpreter would be required for mediation or court, in addition to a translation of court documents and the initial Divorce Registration.

Divorce Procedures in America

Any legal or administrative procedure is made more complicated in the USA due to the lack of legal consistency throughout the country, as each state is considered sovereign allowing it to create, implement, and enforce its own laws. In contrast to Japan, which simply requires couples to fill out and submit a two-page administrative document, one thing that unifies all states in the US is how complicated the overall divorce procedure is.

All states technically recognize a no-fault divorce. In these cases, the grounds for divorce are often “irreconcilable differences” or an “irreparable breakdown of the marriage.” Yet to make this more complicated, some states require the spouses to live apart for a certain period of time before divorcing, except in a ‘fault’ divorce, i.e. divorce under the grounds of adultery, confinement, physical or emotional abuse, abandonment, or a sexless marriage. (Check out Findlaw for more on these two types of divorce.)

As Legalzoom elucidates, most of the USA does conform to the following procedures, although specific details and extra documents which are needed may change.

  1. One spouse (called the ‘petitioner’) fills out a Divorce Petition, a document that indicates the couple’s name and if they have children, and lists any property, child custody, or child support.
  2. This petition is served to the other spouse, which is called a Service of Process. The other spouse (called the ‘respondent’) can sign it if they agree.
  3. The respondent has 30 days to file a response to the petition. In that time period, neither spouse is allowed to take the children out of state or sell/lend their property or insurance.
  4. The spouses must disclose their assets, liabilities, income, and expenses, and create a parenting plan for any children they have. A parenting plan details who makes final decisions for education, major medical issues, extra-curricular activities, and religion etc, which parent has primary custody, the division of physical custody and child support. Any prenuptial agreements entered into will effect the divisions of assets.
  5. Assuming the divorce isn’t contested, the judge has the final say. The court gives a judgement determining if the distribution of assets is fair, if the parenting plan is in the child’s best interests, and if there are any reasons not to dissolve the marriage (such as pregnancy or co-habitation).
  6. If it’s contested, then this will enter more court hearings or even a trial.

Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in Cook County, IL (Page 1 of 6)

The general process in the US is inherently more combative than in Japan and provides more opportunities for both language professionals and legal professionals to guide couples along the labyrinth which is US Family Law in each state.

In a simple divorce proceeding with at least one party who is not fluent in English, the court will provide an interpreter for the judgement, the mandatory parenting class if that states requires it (now required in Illinois for both the male and female parent), and any family mediation provided by the court. In Cook County, IL, where I live, couples are allowed two three-hour sessions of mediation, in which a mediator discusses the parenting plan only. If one spouse is Japanese, the Divorce Certificate must be translated to update the Family Register (戸籍). However, one spouse may want to commission the translation of all court documents including those verifying assets, liabilities, and the parenting plan.

In more complicated cases which are contested, the court may have to do discovery, the legal process of finding evidence for trial, related to the couple’s assets, child support, criminal records, etc. Any records in a foreign language which require translation and discovery through court-ordered interrogatories also require an interpreter for non-proficient English-speakers.

Parental Kidnapping and the Hague Convention

While a marriage does not necessitate children, their presence in any form of break-up complicates everything. Whether in Japan or the US, the divorce procedure focuses on finances and children. In the case of an international divorce (or in the US even a cross-state divorce), there is a new dimension brought in. Namely, if both parents live far away, who will the children stay with? And when will the other parent get to see their child?

Imagine this scenario. Let’s say mom and dad live in New York, where mom is from, and dad has immigrated to the USA from Japan. They have one child living with them who is a minor. The marriage is falling apart and they decide to divorce, but dad wants to go home to Osaka. It’s hardly in the interest of the child to spend every other week in a different country. Both parents want the child to live with them. Who does the child stay with? And what happens if dad takes the child to Japan without informing mom? Alternatively, what if the family lived in Osaka and mom wanted to go home to New York with their child, so she took a flight to the USA without talking to dad?

This is referred colloquially as parental kidnapping. The international treaty dealing with these issues is the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction(国際的な子の奪取の民事上の側面に関する条約), also referred to as the Hague Convention (ハーグ条約). Both the USA and Japan have signed and ratified the Hague Convention, the USA in 1994 and Japan in 2014. Simply put, the Hague Convention is an agreement to work internationally on a country-by-country basis to make sure one parent is not allowed to disappear with the child.

Let’s take a brief look at the convention itself to see how it would play a role in international divorce cases.

Article 1 Objectives (第一条 目的)

  • Prompt return of children wrongfully removed or retained (不法に連れ去られ、又は不法に留置されている子の迅速な返還)
  • Rights of custody and of access (監護の権利や接触の権利)

Much like in the USA, where children are not allowed to leave their state of residence during the divorce, the Hague Convention stipulates that children must stay in their habitual residence (常居所), which is where they were living prior to the procedure, unless both parents agree to change the habitual residence. As to custody and access, it’s worthwhile to note the major difference in thinking between custody in the USA and Japan. As previously mentioned, in Japan sole custody is the norm with the other parent providing child support, whereas in the USA, joint custody is more common, although how that’s enacted varies drastically. The Hague Convention itself does not define who has custody or access, as this is enforced between individual countries.

Parents whose children have been internationally abducted can file a Hague Application, providing the child is under 16, but any documents submitted in a foreign language require translation. In addition, if the case goes to court in any country, interpreters must be provided.

For more about the specific language of and translation related to the Hague Convention, I highly recommend any JAT members to watch Hideaki Maruoka’s session at the I-JET30 Conference, which was illuminating on this issue.

Dissolving the Union

As international relationships become more common, it’s no surprise their antithesis is becoming more common as well. Personally, I see no use in moralizing about this. While relationships are a beautiful part of life, so is being able to leave a toxic one.

Language professionals have an important role in this process as a third party to keep communication from breaking down entirely, whether in person or in writing. While the interpreter is not an advocate for those they interpret for, speaking from my own experience interpreting for divorce mediation and a final divorce hearing, an interpreter has a pivotal role in ensuring foreign-language speakers can understand what is going on in this tricky, complicated process. Likewise, having translated divorce documents related to the Family Register, while there is more of an emotional separation, this too is imperative to ensure both parties fully understand and have a legal record of their current marital status. Understanding both systems is imperative as a language professional, and immensely useful as an attorney with a foreign client or someone going through an international divorce.

Both systems have their issues. The system in Japan puts more focus on the partners coming together to agreements, which does allow the potential for one to have more power. Conversely, the USA assumes divorce is a combative process, in which communication has already broken down, necessitating judges, attorneys, and mediators act as a go-between for the couple. This can make even a mutual and amicable split-up strained and extremely expensive. The breakdown of a relationship is an emotional process, which can be made worse by a combative process or one that allows one partner to potentially take advantage of the other. As an international community it’s important to understand the laws that bind us and the faults within them. After all, customs and procedures can always be reformed.

Contracts: An act of good faith or the only thing stopping either party from cheating?

What’s the point of a contract? Is it a sign of good faith? A legally binding document that keeps two individuals in conflict from pulling the wool over the other’s eyes? A confusing document written in an archaic form of the language, too difficult for laymen to understand?

Understanding comparative law is essential for international companies operating in multiple jurisdictions as well as the translators who read through and translate these legal documents.

Few people comb through the entire complexities of an agreement before signing their name and legally binding themselves to its contents. At an office job, one of the most alarming moments I had was when my boss signed an agreement for a business deal drafted by the lawyer without even skimming through the document or asking for any details. (Actually at a previous job, as well, the President would sign documents with a simple understanding of its title without requesting the interpreter to sight read them for him.) In contrast, I had read this contract from front to end.

After all, the devil’s in the details and you never know the concessions and obligations you’ve bound yourself to if you don’t read it and simply signing it is tantamount to conceding your right to negotiation or revoke an offer. However, my mindset on this matter comes from an American legal tradition and likewise my bosses in both cases held assumptions deriving from a Japanese legal tradition.

So then let’s examine the differences on how contracts are viewed in the USA/United Kingdom and Japan and how these assumptions are written into the actual contracts in theses jurisdictions.

All Possible Issues Excluding Force Majeure

In American contract law, a contract is a legally binding document in which something of value must be exchanged and which requires mutual assent, i.e, both parties must agree to the contract. Anglo-American contracts come out of a common law tradition. As Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, Professor at Pennsylvania Law School explains, under contract law the two parties are assumed to have equity in the law so both have the power to revoke an offer or renegotiate the offer prior to signing the contract. One major difference between the UK and US contract laws is that the US leaves it up to the individuals and the market to weed out unfair terms, while the UK has taken legislative action to constrict what can be included in their contents.

In his course to understand English contracts and translate them into Japanese, Noboru Watanabe makes this observation about English contracts and why they are often much longer and more detailed than their Japanese counterparts.

“In contrast to Japanese contracts, contracts in the United States and Great Britain are considered documents for when problems arise or when the reciprocal relationship between the two parties breaks down. (In other words, during a marriage, they write out some lines in case the couple divorces.)”


– From 英契約書の読み方・話し方 at Simul Academy

In her book A Practical Guide to U.S. Law for Japanese Businessmen (アメリカ駐在員のための法律常識), Michiko Ito, an American Attorney at Law, describes the USA as a litigious country and mentions that “Americans want to write a contract for anything they do”. 「アメリカ人は何をやっても契約書を作りたがる。」

A major reason for this is the parole evidence rule, an Anglo-American common law rule, which states that, except in certain exceptions, negotiations prior to agreed upon written contract cannot negate or be considered in the interpretation of the contract. That is to say, if you were told that something could be cancelled free of charge, but in the contract there’s a cancellation penalty, if you signed the contract, you are liable for the penalty, since the contract is considered the final agreement between the parties.

Considering an attorney must take into account all possible ways that the relationship may deteriorate and ascribe all the responsibilities to each party as well as the penalties for breaching these, it’s equally important to list the cases in which neither party are held accountable for not fulfilling their part of the contract. This is described in the Force Majeure (不可抗力) clause. Force Majeure can be translated from French as a “superior force” and means any “Act of God” such as wars, natural disasters, and political or economic upheaval.

“In Anglo-American law, the expectation is that once a contract is established, unless there are exceptions, ‘the obligations therein, which includes the items listed under Force Majeure, must be performed no matter what happens.’ Consequently, as many possible reasons for Force Majeure should be listed so that nothing is omitted.”


– From 英契約書の読み方・話し方 at Simul Academy

Sign of Mutual Trust

While the US and Great Britain have a more cynical view of the relationship between the two parties, Japan has a more optimistic approach to contracts and their negotiation. A contract itself is considered 「相互信頼の証」(a sign of mutual trust) rather than the final word in the negotiation, which negates all prior correspondence. As such whereas Anglo-American agreements have Force Majeure to list every possible outcome, Japanese contracts have a clause called 「別途協議条項」(Separate Negotiation Clause) or 「紳士条項」(Gentleman’s Clause), which states if anything unexpected arises outside the parameters set by the contract, the two parties will discuss this with one another and come to an agreement.

An example of this clause:

“If an item not established in the Agreement occurs or questions arise about the interpretation of the clauses therein, both parties will discuss separately in good faith and smoothly resolve this matter.”


Extract from 英契約書の読み方・話し方 at Simul Academy

Attorney Michiko Ito in her book mentions her Japanese clients often insist on inserting a clause about good faith 「誠意協議条件」 (good faith negotiation) in their contracts in the USA, but American lawyers often throw out such clauses since they are an agreement to agree on something in the future and as such are considered to be nonsensical and too vague to be included. However, she does mention that this clause could be tweaked in the USA to mention that the two parties will make a decision through arbitration if a dispute occurs, instead of agreeing that they will negotiate and come to an agreement later.

In Japanese contract law, the relationship and trust between the parties is more important than the written contract itself. In fact, the Japanese Civil Code in Article 521 doesn’t specify that the offer and acceptance to necessitate the formation of a contract must be in writing. While the idea of a verbal agreement exists in Anglo-American law, most individuals or companies prefer legally enforceable documentation. In my own case, I feel more assured if I’ve signed a contractor agreement with a company or individual, either drafted by them or myself, rather than us agreeing over the phone or over email that they will pay a certain amount for me to finish a particular project within a certain time frame. As an American it’s hard to trust a gentleman’s agreement, without the terms of the agreement laid out and thinking through how this relationship may break down.

On the flip side, from a Japanese perspective, an American contract seems to indicate an insulting lack of trust between the parties. After all, if you’re marrying someone you trust and they start discussing in detail what will happen if you get a divorce, that may signal to you they don’t have any faith in you. Michiko Ito recounts one story of a license agreement contract, in which the Japanese company upon seeing the thick detailed contract felt impugned and inquired directly to the American company if they didn’t trust them. As she explains, “Japanese people don’t have a clear concept of contracts, but they do respect obligations and humanity” 「日本人は契約に対する概念が明瞭でなく、義理、人情などを重んじる」. For this reason, while a Japanese contract does list potential penalties for breaches, it mostly emphasizes the duties each party should honor and good faith negotiations for any uncertainties or future changes.

Duty of Good Faith

It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that in contrast, Anglo-American contracts denote a lack of good faith. In that very same story which Michiko Ito told, the American company, when questioned about their lack of faith, responded, half jokingly, that they wouldn’t be forming such an important agreement with a company they didn’t trust.

While Japan puts more stress on the idea of good faith, in American contract law there is a general implied duty of good faith to perform and enforce a contract, which is unique for common law countries and is much more in line with civil law countries such as Japan or France. In fact, according to Charles Russell Speechlys LLP , “US law and English law differ as to good faith”. Implied duty of good faith only exists in the UK for specific types of contracts “such as employment law and insurance law in relation to pre-contractual disclosure by a party seeking cover. “

Contracts as Cross-Cultural Exchanges

Whether drafted in the USA, the UK, or Japan, a contract must involve the exchange of something of value and must be time-limited. However, the legal and social culture of the jurisdiction seeps into the contents of the contract itself. In international negotiations and agreements between companies or individuals these assumptions about whether a contract is something written in stone and unchangeable or a sign of good faith that can be negotiated in the future come to the forefront and can lead to conflict or confusion.

Whether reading a contract in its original or translated form, it’s important to understand the specific cultural and legal tradition that the agreement is bound to. As a translator these sorts of cultural-specific assumptions and norms are the most fascinating and frustrating part of my occupation. However, cross-cultural understanding is also imperative for international companies as well. The specific context of cultural assumptions and legal traditions are essential to understand the English translation of a Japanese contract or a Japanese translation of an English contract. Even in translation, a contract still speaks about a specific legal tradition and a specific culture.

Professional Associations: Are they worth it?

Professional Translation Associations

With two translation conferences coming up, this is the perfect time to take a break from writing research-heavy legal articles and discuss professional translation associations. While this may be more relevant for other translators or aspiring translators, it could be interesting for anyone vaguely interested in the translation industry.

group of people sitting near table
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

Most industries have professional associations, whether they’re mandatory or elective associations. After all, humans are as a species social creatures and like-minded people enjoy spending time with those who share similar interests and gaining insights from others working in a similar field.

Personally, between finishing my Masters and starting freelancing full-time, I joined lots of organizations for both Japanese translators and general translators, partially for this human connection and partially for professional development.

Currently I’m a member of:

  • JAT (Japanese Association of Translators)
  • NLSC (National Language Service Corps)
  • CHICATA (Chicago Area Translators and Interpreters Association
  • MATI (Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters)
  • ATA (American Translators Association)
  • SWET (Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators)
  • TWB (Translators Without Borders)

However, most of these organizations— excluding NLSC and TWB, which are voluntary organizations — cost money to join as well as to participate in any activities. So particularly as a new translator with limited funds are professional organizations worth it?

Inherent in this question is what are the costs of these associations versus what are the benefits. For the memberships that I’ve joined the only cost is an economic one — ranging from $10 to $200 — as general membership does not require forced participation or engagement. While I do view these memberships as an investment, when looking at the benefits I prefer to define them broadly, bringing value in both tangible and intangible ways, rather than seeing it as a number driven cost-benefit analysis.

people gathering inside room
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Human Connection

While I’ve touched on the human aspect, it bears repeating. Freelancing is an isolating job, particularly when you work with clients around the world and mostly interact through emails. Most organizations have different meet-ups for their members ranging from conferences and workshops to more casual picnics and social gatherings. For a newer translator, this is an opportunity to learn from veteran translators, to ask about the business, translating specific terms, average prices in the industry, scams, and so on, and to speak to others starting out or further in their career about their experiences. It’s important not to feel alone and that human connection is imperative for someone who thrives on conversation and feeling like they’re part of a community. In a more tangible sense, I’ve gotten recommendations of reading materials, useful advice about marketing and places that need Japanese translations, and been referred to a client.

Professional Development

As someone who likes to read textbooks, watch documentaries and essay vlogs, and listen to educational podcasts for fun, the professional development aspect of these memberships is very important to me. These sorts of memberships offer workshops on select topics in the industry, articles, forums, and conferences. There is more material than I could ever possibly consume. JAT and ATA has a free (quarterly and monthly) periodical full of articles on more general business planning, marketing, technology, developments in the translation and interpreting industry as well as more specific pieces about translating specific genres or dealing with difficult forms of speech such as idioms, jokes/puns, metaphors, and culture-specific phrases.

JAT has a useful forum about various topics in Japanese translation, which includes some links to the recording of conferences that I couldn’t attend since I live outside Japan. NLSC has an extensive list of resources to continuously hone and develop your non-native language. ATA has an extensive resource list that shamefully I’ve hardly explored. Likewise, SWET has many articles on editing and writing that I’ve read little of, but I have appreciated the threads discussing translation of specific terminology and non-textual (i.e. punctuation and formatting) discussions. TWB has a free online training about translation and interpreting for humanitarian organizations. I’ve attended a few webinars via MATI and CHICATA on legal translation, business development, marketing, and healthcare interpreting. However, this is hardly an exhaustive list of what’s available. I attended one full-day program in the suburbs of Chicago, which discusses Adword and Google for Business as well as literary translation, poetry, and Latin in English legalese.


This year, for the first time since IJET-26 in York, I am joining two different conferences: the MATI 15th Annual Conference on September 29 in Indianapolis and the ATA  59th Annual Conference on October 24-27 in New Orleans. These offer sessions on topics in translation —  in the case of ATA there are lots of sessions on legal translation and specifically in my language pairs Japanese/English which I am over the moon about and wish I could time travel to attend multiple sessions simultaneously—  and networking opportunities not just with other translators but companies looking for potential translators such as translation or localization companies and governmental organizations. MATI is sponsored by several translation companies who will attend the conference and ATA has two evening events specifically for networking with new clients.

As someone who likes in-person interaction but is a bit shy, meeting people in conferences is the best of all worlds. Particularly for asking questions to colleagues, I prefer to ask one on one or in a small group rather than public forums, which I may read but almost never post anything, being hesitant to put myself out there. While I feel as comfortable with job hunting digitally as I do in person —  excluding my dreaded cold calling —  it’s useful to make in-person connections with potential clients to foster a connection with them and gain recognition beyond simply being someone able to provide a particular service. When I worked in sales, I read one article that indicated that people often buy things based on emotion rather than just on benefits like quality or price; this is debatable at best, however, having that human connection makes them more likely to tell you about opportunities and connect outside a purely work-oriented arena.

However, conferences are a major expense in and of themselves. They provide ample opportunity to learn, network, and find projects, but even just to attend it’s in the hundreds of dollars. In my case, it’s a gamble that I’m looking forward to.

Access to Prestige

Many of these organizations have a directory, in which you can detail your experience, language pairs, and specializations. While there are also free translation directories such as Proz and TranslatorCafe, professional organizations are just that, professional. Much like the Alans in the Middle Ages using their access to the Byzantine Empire to gain the power that comes with prestige —  if you forgive an obscure reference —  professional bodies bestow a sense of professionalism through association and with that prestige.

Of course, as a translator, one must provide high-quality translations, yet having this access to a reputable organization provides more opportunities for clients searching for translators to stumble across your profile, and reassures new clients that you are a professional. I have been contacted multiple times by people who found my profile via these organizations. Although, at the moment they do no represent a large chunk of my workflow.

ATA has a certification test, which I’ve heard mixed reviews on ranging from it being unnecessary and overpriced to it being very useful for getting high-quality clients. At the conference, I intend to attend one talk on this certification.

To Join or Not to Join

This question is hard to answer in a simple yes or no. Joining is not imperative to be a professional translator, yet there are certainly benefits. While there are quite a few free resources for professional development, even after the initial cost most workshops and conferences are an additional expense so the costs for someone struggling financially is not something to take lightly.

Personally, I feel satisfied with the memberships I have. In fact, one day when I have more cash to burn I’d like to join NAJIT and try to attend another I-JET conference. The interaction I’ve had with other translators is invaluable. It may not directly improve my abilities or find work, but I have learned a lot of information and simply met some wonderful people who are fun to have a drink with. Veteran translators indicate the conference sessions tend to be recycled so after decades of attendance they offer less useful information, but as a new freelancer and translator with less than five years of experience, the opportunity to hone my skills is indispensable. While it is quite the expense and conferences are a big time commitment, as a translator or aspiring translator professional organizations are something to seriously consider.

Birth, Marriage, Death! Oh My! The World of the Family Registry [koseki 戸籍]


For the second installment of my legal series, I’d like to explore a formal Japanese administrative document that I have translated many times, which has no direct equivalent in either the USA or the UK. While such official paperwork may seem trivial and perhaps on the cusp of what’s considered “legal” documentation, it plays an important role in documenting who is in the in-group and who is an outsider, who gets rights and who doesn’t. It’s an imperative document with a rich history and some serious issues for those outside of mainstream society.

adult adventure baby child
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From birth to marriage, from giving birth to death, the Family Registry (Koseki 戸籍 in Japanese) records all of this information. The Family Registry functions as an official birth certificate, certification of citizenship, death certificate, marriage license, and a census, which are compiled into a one- to two-page document and is kept at regional public offices. The Family Registry is filed under the name of the “head of the household” and is required to be updated after various life changes: marriage, birth, adoption, divorce, and death. This information is updated by submitting the following forms to the municipality in which one’s family register is located: Registration of Birth (Shussei Todoke 出生届), Marriage Certificate (Konin Todoke婚姻届), Divorce Registration (Rikon Todoke 離婚届), and Death Certificate (Shibou Todoke 死亡届).

Due to how imperative this document is for Japanese national identity, the translation of this form as well as other documentation may be required for divorce hearings between a Japanese national and foreigner, any major life event that happened outside of Japan, for a Japanese person living abroad to receive an inheritance, and to submit identification information to a foreign government (for example for Japanese nationals living in the US). The relevant law presiding over this short, but important document is the Family Register Act (Koseki-hou 戸籍法), established in 1947; and Article 13 details exactly what must be included in the Family Registry.

第十三条 戸籍には、本籍の外、戸籍内の各について、左の事を記載しなければならない
Article 13 In addition to the registered domicilethe following matters shall be entered in a family register for each person in the family register:
一 氏名
(i) his/her name;
二 出生の年月日
(ii) his/her date of birth;
三 戸籍に入つた原因及び年月日
(iii) the cause and date of his/her entry in the family register;
四 父母氏名及び父母との続柄
(iv) the names of his/her natural parents and his/her relationship with his/her natural parents;
五 養子であるときは、養親氏名及び養親との続柄
(v) in the case of an adopted childthe name(s) of his/her adoptive parent(s) and his/her relationship with his/her adoptive parent(s);
六 夫婦については、夫又は妻である旨
(vi) for a husband and wife, a statement that they are husband and wife;
七 他の戸籍から入つた者については、その戸籍表示
(vii) for a person whose name has been moved from another family registerreference to the former family registerand
八 その省令で定める事
(viii) other matters specified by Ordinance of the Ministry of Justice.
Family Register Act Article 13 from Japanese Law Translation
Family Registration Example

Origins of the Family Registry

While the laws presiding over the Family Registry are from the post-war era, this document detailing all of Japanese citizenry  — as seen in the example above — first came out during the Meiji Restoration in 1872 and for the first time required all Japanese citizens to have surnames. Prior to this during the Bakufu (a period of military government led by the Shogunate from 1192 to 1868) there were four documents to record the population: Registry of Human Categories (Ninbetsuchō 人別帳), Religious Inquisition Registry (Shūmon jinbetsu aratamechō 宗門人別改帳), Five Household Registry (Gonin gumichō 五人組帳) , and the Death Registry (Kakochō 過去帳). Under these systems, certain social outcasts such as the Burakumin, who are a group in Japan that has been historically discriminated against due to the occupation and identity of their ancestors, were excluded from this registration. Unfortunately the modern Family Registry has not completely shaken this history and has been accused of blatant discrimination.

Discriminatory Implications

According to Colin Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School, in his article “Japan’s discriminatory koseki registry system looks ever more outdated”, this system legitimizes and even to some extent mandates discrimination against outsiders. He details that one group of outsiders of this system is the imperial family who is registered in the Imperial Family Register (Koutoufu 皇統譜) and any princess who marries an outsider becomes a “commoner” who is removed from the family register and added to the Koseki system.

Another group of outsiders are called Mukosekisha (無戸籍者) or people with no Family Registry. There are many issues for children whose parents are unknown, children born abroad whose parents didn’t register them within 3 months, and children through artificial insemination or surrogacy. In one episode of the radio podcast series 弁護士の放課後 ほな行こか〜 (After School with Lawyers Let’s get a move on!), which interviews members of the Osaka Bar Association, a family lawyer details why Japanese parents should register their unregistered children and that there are no penalties for doing it late. Some of these children are unregistered because their mother or parents didn’t want to be found (potentially due to domestic abuse) or there were other life circumstances which prevented registration and are hesitant to see a lawyer for fear of being judged. However, as the special speaker mentioned, most lawyers won’t lecture you for this, if they do then you can switch to a different one, and even if it’s last minute parents should register their children as it will be hard for them to function in society, register for school, or get a job when they grow up.

The final group that Colin Jones identifies are ethnic Koreans in Japan and foreigners in Japan, as the system itself is linked to nationality and one must be connected to a Family Registry to be naturalized as a Japanese citizen, which can mean a foreign spouse being added to their Japanese partner’s family registry. (In the pre-war version of the Family Register, Japanese citizens who married a foreigner were removed from the registry and foreign spouses were barred from being part of the registry.)

Attempting to Change an Arcane System

I would be remiss in not mentioning challenges to the Family Register system to address inherent discriminatory issues.  After all, laws and policies are not static and can sometimes be amended, even if it takes time to chip away at it.

In the case of the Family Registry Act, the one notable amendment is the 2003 Gender Identity Disorder (GID) Act which states that with the letter of support from two psychiatrists, someone can change their gender listed on the Family Registry. Same-sex marriage has not been legalized in Japan, however with the Family Registry system, same-sex couples can use the “adult adoption” to adopt one partner into the other’s Family Registry to gain legal visiting rights for medical treatment and family inheritance. However, adoption is not allowed for a person of “old age”.

Prior to the 1980s, the Nationality Law (Kokusekihou 国籍法) only allowed Japanese males to pass on “Japanese” nationality in the case of a union with a foreign partner, yet with the 1985 adoption of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women allowed a woman to pass her nationality onto children born from foreign spouses. Due to the fact that the fathers must “recognize” their paternity of their children it has been hard for foreign women to claim Japanese nationality for their children, yet with the 2008 Supreme court ruling that the Nationality Law provision on illegitimate children was unconstitutional, the father can retroactively recognize paternity even after birth. In 2015, a case arguing that the Family Registry’s requirement for married couples to have the same name is a form of discrimination against women, yet the Supreme Court upheld this provision.

The Family Registry system has been accused of being arcane and a legal form of upholding discrimination, which no longer represents what the modern Japanese family looks like. In 2017, the Ministry of Justice has suggested replacing the Family Registry system with the My Number System used for the tax and social insurance system. Perhaps over time this seemingly unchanging document and the almost unchanging Family Registry Act will too be affected by the winds of change and find space for those in Japan who have been deemed “outsiders” to it. Yet in the meantime it’s important for legal professionals and translators who deal with such documents alike to understand the Family Registry system and the laws underpinning it.