50.50: Opinion

Allow married women in Japan to keep their surnames

The single-surname rule is a legacy of a traditional patriarchal family system. Calls for change are growing – though opposition is fierce.

Teppei Kasai
23 December 2020
Traditional wedding ceremony at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo | Image: Jon Connell/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Before 31-year-old Kyoko Takahashi (a pseudonym) got married, she and her fiancé never discussed which surname they would use. Even as they discussed the many other aspects of the future they were planning together, the burden she would subsequently take on by changing her last name was never on the agenda.

Takahashi has now been married to her husband for two years and she still feels awkward using his last name. She says she is frustrated that she had to give up a part of her identity, simply because she’s a woman. “I’ve always questioned why only women are expected to change their last name,” she told me. “I feel a strong connection to my maiden name, so I still use it professionally.”

Her experience isn’t unique. In Japan, couples who marry are legally required to choose either the husband or wife’s surname, as stipulated in Article 750 of the Civil Code, and nearly all choose the husband’s surname. A man who wishes to support his wife’s desire to keep her surname must defy convention and social pressure – something that few seem prepared to do.

The single-surname system is a legacy of Japan’s traditional patriarchal family system, which placed men at the top of the family hierarchy and viewed women as entering the man’s family upon marriage. A new constitution, created after World War Two, recognised equality between men and women and abolished the traditional family system. Yet, the single-surname rule remained. “The traditional family system has been abolished, but its underlying values survive like a spectre,” said Naho Ida, a working mother who is leading the National Petition Action for an Optional Dual Surname System, a campaign aimed at reforming Article 750. These underlying values, she said, “function as social pressures.”

For many women, including 30-year-old Akiko (a pseudonym), the requirement to change her surname is on a long list of reasons why she does not see herself getting married in the foreseeable future. “Names are part of someone’s identity and changing it would mean you’re changing who they are,” she explained. “The fact this is done so casually shows there’s a more fundamental problem here.”

“The traditional family system has been abolished, but its underlying values survive like a spectre.”

Calls for legal reform have been around for decades, both inside and out of the Japanese government. In 1996, the justice ministry’s legislative council proposed an optional dual-surname system. However, this proposal never reached parliament for debate because of “differing opinions” among the public, the ministry said. Nearly twenty years ago, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also called on the Japanese government to repeal Article 750 and replace it with a system that “allows the choice of surnames for married couples”. The committee reiterated this request in 2009 and 2016.

When Japan’s Supreme Court in 2015 ruled against a lawsuit seeking to have Article 750 declared unconstitutional, then-CEDAW committee chair Yoko Hayashi criticised the decision as “antiquated and lamentable”, noting that all three women justices, out of the total of fifteen, opposed it. These three justices pointed out in a dissenting opinion that while some women may voluntarily choose to adopt their husband’s surname, factors including weaker socioeconomic status in comparison to men, and vulnerable position in the household, leave many with little choice.

Opinion and opposition

Public opinion in Japan is moving toward supporting reform. About 43% of respondents to a 2017 government survey said they would support changes to allow married couples to use their original surnames (about a 7% increase from 2012).

Opponents of reform, including some conservative politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, claim that a husband and a wife having different surnames would negatively affect family bonds. But it seems the general public disagrees. The same 2017 government survey found that around 64% of respondents believed different surnames would not affect family bonds (up about 5% from 2012). About 80% said that having different surnames would not affect their relationships with in-laws.

When Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said during a parliamentary session last month that he has long voiced support for a system where members of the same family could have different surnames, it offered a new glimmer of hope.

However, opposition to change has remained fierce. Discussions inside the ruling party about a five-year policy plan to achieve gender equality took a turn for the worse in December. Powerful party conservatives prevented a reference to an optional dual-surname system from being included in the plan, which is expected to be approved by the cabinet as early as this week.

This latest failed attempt at reform shows how far Japanese women still must go before their rights are fully respected. The government should demonstrate that it is serious about creating a society that is more inclusive and equitable for women. It should replace Article 750 with a system that would allow every individual, regardless of marital status, to choose whether to change their name. People’s sense of family does not, and should not, ultimately depend on surname conformity.

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