Japanese surnames: a call for change

People in Japan are questioning the social norm of married couples adopting the same surname. The mandatory system was introduced 120 years ago, but the willingness to comply is far from universal any more. Many women want to choose, rather than be forced into a change that can be associated with a loss of identity.

Article 750 of Japan’s Civil Code states that a husband and wife must have the same family name upon marriage. That means one spouse is legally required to change theirs – and it’s almost always the woman. Different surnames are only allowed for international marriages.

A 2016 Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare survey found that among more than 600,000 marriages, just 4 percent of men took their wife’s surname. The overwhelming expectation is for women to abandon their birthnames.

“Social death”

The current law stems from a tradition established during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). But a growing number of people say the legislation is outdated, and out of step with the social changes that have occurred since then.

“Some people are happy to change their surname because they see it as marking a new stage in life. But there is also a large portion of people who feel it is unequal. I feel that it amounts to social death,” says Ida Naho, the director of an organization pushing for the option of dual surnames.

Naho is standing up against the long-standing law after going through the complicated and exasperating process of changing her surname for two marriages. Since 2018, she has been lobbying lawmakers.

“I went through more than 100 bureaucratic processes with various institutions, including bank accounts, passport and credit cards to change my family name. I felt like I was losing my dignity and sense of identity,” she explains. “I think it’s unfair that we have to choose one surname for a family. It’s a personal right to be able to keep or change our birthname.”

Naho says many women are disadvantaged and inconvenienced under the current system. She also claims that it can be the source of privacy violations, with name changes reflecting personal events such as divorce or re-marriage.

Ida Naho
Ida Naho has been lobbying lawmakers through her campaign group. She says official members surpass 250, of which a third are men.

Minority wants status quo

Many people in Japan believe it’s time for a rethink. An online survey conducted last year by Naho’s lobby group and Waseda University Professor Tanamura Masayuki found 70.6 percent of 7,000 respondents said they didn’t mind if married couples used different surnames. Just 14.4 percent supported the status quo.

While the issue is often regarded as a matter for women, Tanamura maintains it impacts men as well. He says 2.4 percent of male respondents in their 20s had given up on marriage because they could not have a different surname to their partner.

Nearly 80 percent of the respondents in their 20s were open to change, as were 68 percent of people in their 40s, and 67 percent of those in their 50s.

Ruling party takes note

Over the past few decades, the idea of separate surnames for married couples has been discussed in the Japanese Diet. All attempts were quashed in early phases of legislation.

There has been strong resistance among conservative politicians, especially within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Opponents argue that it will weaken family bonds, make divorce easier, and cause harmful effects to children.

But moves not seen before are now afoot. The LDP started official discussions in early April, and set up a working team to hear a range of opinions and summarize the main points.

While Japan’s Supreme Court upheld the 19th century surname law in a 2015 legal challenge, the issue has been referred to its Grand Bench in cases brought by three Tokyo couples.

As political, social and legal pressure builds, Tanamura wants surname reform to be considered part of a broader vision.
“We need to think and choose what kind of society we are opting for,” he says. “Is it a society where an archaic system remains and forces people to use one name for a family? Or is it a society that embraces diversity and allows people to choose their own path? It’s a touchstone issue.”

Tanamura urges young people to get involved: “Not raising your voice is the same as agreeing to the status quo. If voters don't speak up, then the government won't budge.”

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