JAPAN: WHAT’S IN A (SUR)NAME, SHAKESPEARE ASKED?

JAMES HANSON WRITES — How important is your surname to you? Mari Inoue and Kotaro Usui, a Tokyo couple, were denied a marriage certificate during the pandemic because Mari Inoue wanted to keep her legal surname. Article 750 of Japan’s Civil Code requires that married couples adopt the same surname. In addition, the law forbids any combination of options such as combining two surnames with a hyphen or keeping one surname as a middle name.

Some Japanese women get around this law by using birth names at work and their married surnames on official documents such as bank accounts, passports, etc. But overwhelmingly, women choose their husbands’ surnames. According to one particular survey, just 4.1 percent of men took their wife’s surname in over 600,000 marriages.

Despite being a modern industrialized country, Japan remains one of the few countries in which having different surnames for married couples is illegal. This single-surname system is a legacy of Japan’s traditional patriarchal family system. Written during the Meiji era in 1896, the law goes back to a time when it was common for underprivileged women in the country to leave their families, adopt their husband’s surname and become a part of the husband’s family.

Calls for legal reform have been around for decades, but the law remains controversial, with proponents of women’s rights pitted against conservatives. For example, Japan’s justice ministry’s legislative council in 1996 proposed an optional dual-surname system but it never reached parliament for debate. In 2015, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled against three Tokyo couples seeking to have Article 750 declared unconstitutional. The court argued that Article 750 did not violate Article 14 of the Japanese constitution, which guarantees equality of all people under the law. Specifically, the court stated that it did not violate the principle of gender equality since the law clearly states that married couples must adopt either the husband or wife’s family name-so no gender discrimination there!

In recent years, the Japanese public seems to be moving towards reform. A 2017 government survey found that about 43% of people supported changes to allow married couples to use their original surnames. In addition, the survey found that 64% believed that different surnames did not affect family bonds. Some Japanese men, like Shu Matsuo, have gone so far as to take their wives’ surnames to draw attention to Japan’s patriarchal society.

Despite growing support, though, many conservatives continue to argue against changes in the surname law due to the belief that doing so could damage family ties, make divorce easier and threaten to undermine Japanese society. Many Japanese woman still feel pressured to choose their husband’s surname. Even Tomato Marukawa, minister of women’s empowerment and gender equality, stated that she was opposed to reforming the law.

Obviously, the surnames issue is one of great importance in Japanese society. So it is incumbent on Japanese activists in the international community to continue to speak out in support of citizens’ rights to choose their surnames, and their identities as noted by name.  Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” According to the Japanese, it seems, a lot.

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