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Experts say surname verdict reflects top court’s gender, age makeup

Kyodo

The Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that upheld the constitutionality of a law that requires spouses to choose a single surname dealt a heavy blow to advocates who want to see change.

They worry Japan may have missed a chance to join the global trend of allowing married couples to have separate legal surnames.

The ruling also raised the question of whether a better gender balance among the top court’s 15 justices might have resulted in a different outcome. Of the court’s 15 members, only three are women.

“If there was a better gender balance of the judges, it may have led to a different ruling,” said Mari Miura, a political professor at Sophia University.

Shuhei Ninomiya, a professor of family law at Ritsumeikan University, said opinions may have varied among the judges based on their understanding of the pain of changing one’s surname and the problems that stem from it.

In the ruling, all three female justices out of 15 were in favor of the plaintiffs. In their opinions, they cited women who suffered disadvantages and inconveniences from changing their surnames, such as the case of researchers who had already published research papers under their maiden names, and other examples where the building of a career after marriage was made more difficult by the change.

“Women shoulder almost all the burdens — the obstacles and loss of self-confidence — that come from (changing surnames),” one of the opinions said. “It is hardly a system that ensures individual dignity and gender equality.”

According to a government survey, more people tend to oppose separate surnames as they age. The 15-member justices were all in their 60s.

“The fact that more elderly people sympathize with a single surname may have been reflected in the ruling,” said Ninomiya of Ritsumeikan University.

The ruling stated that the disadvantages that come with a change of surname could be mitigated by expanding the use of maiden names in some situations.

According to a survey by the Institute of Labor Administration, a private research group, 64.5 percent of firms that responded allowed the use of maiden names at work in 2013, up from 17.8 percent in 1995.

“I was really excited before the ruling. But now, the debate (over allowing separate surnames) may lose momentum,” said Etsuko Kuzuya, 43, who works in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward.

Kuzuya has used her maiden name at work since she was married, but she has to use her husband’s surname for official documents such as rental contracts, elections and other administrative procedures in her municipality.

“There is no legal backing for common names,” Kuzuya said.

“It seems (the judges) don’t understand the reality.”

According to the Justice Ministry, there are no other countries that ban separate surnames.Lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party say the top court’s decision must have been well received by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Predominantly conservative lawmakers’ group Sosei Nippon (Japan’s Rebirth), headed by Abe, is essentially opposed to the change, and says it will work to keep the law unchanged in order to preserve the unity of the family.

One Cabinet minister said Abe was taking a realistic stance to appeal to a wider audience outside his conservative base.

“Abe’s administration is pushing for a greater role in society for women, but upholding laws that force couples to choose a single surname will only hinder achieving the goal,” said Ritsumeikan’s Ninomiya. “Instead of backpedaling the debate, the government should push forward to (change) the legislation.”

On Wednesday, Tomomi Inada, policy chief of the ruling LDP, said the ruling was “reasonable.” Inada also said measures were needed to make it easier to use maiden names at work, adding that the party should consider whether a law revision is necessary.

Meanwhile, Katsuya Okada, who heads the opposition’s Democratic Party of Japan, said the party planned to submit legislation in the regular Diet session to be convened next month that would allow couples to have separate legal surnames.

“Just because the (Supreme Court ruling) said it was constitutional doesn’t mean (lawmakers) don’t have to do anything,” Okada said.

  • wanderingpippin

    “In Japan in 1996, a Justice Ministry panel proposed amendments to the Civil Code to enable married couples to choose either the husband or wife’s surname. But the proposal was dropped after facing strong opposition from conservative lawmakers.”

    I’m confused by this paragraph. The current situation, as it has been for many decades, is that married couples choose to both use either the surname of the husband or the wife. I can only think the above paragraph is somehow in error.

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    You don’t need to be an expert to know this.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    This is the correct decision. Regardless of the merits of the case, Parliament determined at the time of establishment of the Civil Code that married couples must have the same surname. To decide that the law is otherwise makes a mockery of Parliament and the democratic process. If this law is to be changed it should be changed in Parliament, not by the judiciary whose sole job is to interpret the law. The Plaintiffs however much they wish otherwise are insincere in claiming this is the wrong decision – it is not – it is simply a decision that does not give them what they want. There is a big difference.

    • KenjiAd

      I agree. Personally, I believe that a couple should have an option of choosing different surnames. But I don’t want the Supreme Court to say that. The mechanism for change should be through legislation and election, not by opinions of the Supreme Court.

      Once the Supreme Court started striking down a law(s) on the Constitutionality ground routinely, that would be a very slippery road, because almost any law could be challenged on the Constitutionality ground. The laws created by elected representatives should be respected, even if some of us strongly disagree with it.

    • KenjiAd

      I agree. Personally, I believe that a couple should have an option of choosing different surnames. But I don’t want the Supreme Court to say that. The mechanism for change should be through legislation and election, not by opinions of the Supreme Court.

      Once the Supreme Court started striking down a law(s) on the Constitutionality ground routinely, that would be a very slippery road, because almost any law could be challenged on the Constitutionality ground. The laws created by elected representatives should be respected, even if some of us strongly disagree with it.

    • Kevin

      Then why was the decision given to the supreme court in the first place if they have no real power? I suspect power games at play – perhaps the government wanted it this way so it wouldn’t be a burden for them.

    • mayday

      >”The Plaintiffs however much they wish otherwise are insincere in claiming this is the wrong decision”

      Well, all 3 female judges sided with them so I don’t see why the “plaintiffs” would call it otherwise, from their pov.

      • wanderingpippin

        All 3 of the female judges plus two of the male judges had dissenting opinions and sided with the plaintiffs, however at 5 to 10 they were not strong enough in numbers.

  • BrettR

    I said on a similar article to this.

    Official registered aliases are a very simple and common procedure – I have one. Any man or woman that wants to continue to use their old name, or a completely new one, simply has to go to the local ward office and fill out a form.

    Several female friends at work continued to use their former name after marriage.

  • BrettR

    I said on a similar article to this.

    Official registered aliases are a very simple and common procedure – I have one. Any man or woman that wants to continue to use their old name, or a completely new one, simply has to go to the local ward office and fill out a form.

    Several female friends at work continued to use their former name after marriage.

  • Yo Han

    Japan is really a happy country if women living there do not have any other problems but their surname. The Supreme Court made the correct decision. This was a nitpicking lawsuit by a few feminists demanding millions of yen compensation for non-existing emotional distress.
    There is the option to register an alias to use both names, or if the husband agrees he might use the surname of his wife. About employment, many companies agree with a married woman to use her maiden name, so what is the problem?

    • Resa Bennett

      Yes, I’m sure all the reporting of the consequences of this law is all made up by “nitpickers”. So very plausible.