What’s in a name?

Endless hassle if you don't share it with your spouse

by Sumiko Oshima

A wedding ceremony may be the culmination of romantic love, but it’s also when life within the institution of marriage begins.

The official constraints that institution imposes were rammed home to me — yet again — last month when I went to collect my new passport. I had put off applying to renew my old one for a long time, dreading having to try and convince the Foreign Ministry to issue it bearing the name that appears in my byline (above) — the name officialdom insisted had to disappear when I got married.

I had gone through lots of extra paperwork to get my real name — not my husband’s surname that I am now registered with — on what would be my official ID overseas. I had photocopied stories carrying my byline and passes issued by various organizations. I also submitted a letter explaining that people identify me by my maiden name both professionally and in private.

However, I couldn’t use my company ID because, ironically, although my meishi bears the name Oshima, the newspaper’s administration section refuses to deal with me in any official way using that name. It insists that to do so “would amount to forgery.”

To my relief, when I’d gone to apply for my new passport the clerks had been neither authoritarian nor condescending. The manager even said: “I don’t think it will take long, your application is perfect.” However, he told me that — as with the old passport I was renewing — the best the ministry could do was have my real name printed in parentheses after my registered name. I was not 100 percent satisfied, but was prepared to compromise.

When I went back to collect my passport, though, my mood turned sour when I gave the payment form to a female clerk. Looking up from the form on which I’d entered both my family names, she asked: “Which is your correct name?”

“Sorry?” I queried.

“This should be the correct name,” she said, jabbing a finger at the form.

“What exactly do you mean by my correct name?” I asked.

“Your registered name,” she said.

So I crossed out my real name, Oshima.

The male clerk sitting next to her then handed over my new passport (which has my real name in parentheses).

I turned to the female clerk. “You asked me to give my correct name, right?” I said.

“Yes,” she replied.

“This is not my correct name. It’s just a registered name.”

She looked a little lost as she apologized to me in a small voice.

Leaving the office, I felt sorry for her; I know I am prickly about this subject. But to me my correct surname is my own, the one that has been with me from birth.

During the 10 years since I got married, my surname has been a perpetual source of frustration, anger and sorrow to me. The Civil Code currently forces married couples to choose a single surname, and 99 percent opt for the husband’s.

However, just before I got married I read that a Justice Ministry council had recommended that married couples should be able to each keep their family names if they wished. So back then, I decided to follow the general custom, while expecting an imminent revision of the Civil Code.

But the law has not changed, and I have gotten into — and caused — innumerable troubles ever since.

One of the earliest, and most painful, of these also involved my passport. When I first renewed it after my marriage I was told there was no way to keep my own surname, so I just applied with my registered name. But when I went to pick it up at the passport office it didn’t feel like mine, so I signed it with my real name — which I always use for my signature.

On seeing that, the male clerk said in a businesslike manner: “Ah, we cannot give you the passport. You must apply again. The passport must have a signature matching the registered name.”

So I had to go through the whole process, and pay the fee, again. But that wasn’t the end of it.

The day after receiving my passport I had planned to fly to Hong Kong. I turned up at the check-in counter . . . only to be told I couldn’t board the flight because the surname on my ticket was different from that on my passport. My husband had ordered my ticket in the name I usually use. There was nothing to do but throw away my discounted ticket and pay for a full-fare seat on the spot.

The name issue causes similar headaches daily, albeit on a smaller scale. I have a phobia of receiving notices of parcels or registered mail left in my absence. The post office clerk unfailingly asks in the most righteous tone of voice for some ID.

What he means is my driver’s license or health insurance card — but they’re no use for parcel pick-ups, since almost all the post I receive bears my real name. For this same reason, confusion abounds in all manner of minor ways: Mail addressed to my married name is often returned; clerks at banks, insurance companies, video stores and libraries are puzzled when I forget which name I used when I registered with them — and then they’re even more puzzled when I give the wrong one.

Then there’s this business at work. When I joined the company and complained about their refusal to issue my ID card in the name Oshima, the man handling my application said: “If you want to keep your name, why did you get married?”

It’s a comment that outrages me to this day. But he does have a point. I registered my marriage hoping for a speedy revision of the Civil Code. But the move was stalled by those Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers who claimed it would lead to the collapse of families.

Finally, this year members of the LDP and its two governing coalition partners formed a team to look into the surname problem. However, it’s anyone’s guess how long before they form a view, or if any action will be taken

Perhaps I have been waiting too long. When I told my husband about the passport incident, I cried. After listening, he said: “Let’s get a divorce.”

He wasn’t angry or being flippant. He was just being extremely pragmatic. After all, an increasing number of couples do not register their marriages at all. Others repeatedly marry and divorce on paper when necessary, especially to legitimize any children they have. But as independent taxpayers with no children, my husband and I really have no legal incentive to have our marriage registered.

So I have asked my husband, who works in Hokkaido, to bring divorce papers the next time we meet. But if we cancel our marriage, can we say that we are a common-law couple, since we have lived apart for years? Common-law marriage usually means unregistered but substantial ties, generally between a man and a woman living together. How can we prove our union? Should we have to prove it? After all, why do people want — or need — to prove their bonds in public?

To top it off, a female friend who married an American has told me that the Japanese government allows couples in international marriages to retain their separate names.

It really makes me wonder . . .