Staff writer When Kumiko Nishimura wed two years ago, she thought that registering her marriage with the city office was a natural course of things. But she postponed the registration because she felt it too burdensome to go though the process of changing names on everything — from her driver’s license, passport and insurance to numerous credit cards. To date, Nishimura, 28, is not “legally” married and has no intention of registering — at least until she has a child. “I now feel like I would be losing my own identity if I changed my name by registering my marriage,” she said, adding that changing her name would be very inconvenient for her advertising agency job. Under the Civil Code, either the husband or wife must change their family name to be married legally. In most cases, it is the wife who does so. The history of obliging a married couple to bear a single family name is in fact not very long. It was only after the 1868 Meiji Restoration that families were systematically registered under one family name. Before the Meiji Era, having a surname was a privilege of the samurai class. Ordinary citizens, such as farmers and merchants, were banned from using family names, although some privately used self-claimed family names. In 1870, the Meiji government allowed the total citizenry to use family names, and in the following year, the government enacted the Census Registration Law for levying taxes and for the draft. The new law turned the lineal family, known as “ie,” into one unit of registration. So even if several families of the same ancestor lived separately, they were registered under the name of one ie. The ie concept as the basis of the family system was further strengthened by establishment of the Civil Code in 1898. Under the ie system, the eldest male in a family line was vested with exclusive rights, including the right to approve a marriage, decide the place of residence of married family members, and manage and inherit the family property. The Civil Code stipulated that a wife enters the ie of a husband by marriage and bears the husband’s family name. Wives had no legal rights over family matters, such as parental or property rights. Marriage in the Meiji Era literally meant a union of two families, or more precisely, an absorption of a wife by a husband’s family, according to Mizuho Fukushima, a member of the House of Councilors and a lawyer specializing in family laws. “Marriage was by no means a union of two individuals,” she said. Because young men and women could not marry freely without the legal consent of their family heads, there were many elopements and de facto marriages, Fukushima said. According to Masahiro Yamada, an associate professor of sociology at Tokyo Gakugei University, before the establishment of the Civil Code, the institution of marriage among the common citizenry was more “flexible,” with people easily marrying and remarrying after divorces. This is illustrated by a high divorce rate of around three per every 1,000 people in the 1880s, compared with around 1.9 today, Yamada said. But the establishment of the ie system made marriage more rigid, and “spread the idea that marriage was a lifelong thing,” he said. Marriage in the prewar period was not only a social norm, but also a “necessity” for people to make a living, Yamada said. As most citizens were engaged in farming or small family businesses, they had to find a partner to do family work together and keep the ie line, he said. “The first priority (in marriage) was matching a daughter and a son of economically similar level of families … there was no concept of ‘marriage based on love’ except for some cases among urban upper-class citizens,” he said. Marriage was usually arranged by relatives or local matchmakers, so it was not uncommon for a bride and groom to meet for the first time at their wedding ceremony. Gradually, opposition to such marriages appeared in women’s magazines in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), with special features calling for more “free marriages” as opposed to arranged ones, according to “Nippon Josei Seikatsu-shi” (“History of Women’s Life in Japan”), published by University of Tokyo Press. However, before and during the war, the government re-emphasized the virtue of the ie system by claiming strong family unions to be the basis of a nation ruled by the emperor, the head of all families. Fukushima said there were many wives of first sons who remarried other sons in the same family when the first son died at war. “Women were seen as a property of the ie for leaving offspring,” she said. The postwar Constitution, enacted in 1946, abolished the system of marriage approval by the family heads and stipulated that a marriage takes effect solely by agreement between a man and a woman. In line with the Constitution, the Civil Code was also revised in 1947, stating that a married couple can choose either the husband’s or wife’s name on an equal basis, thereby abolishing the ie system where a wife entered her husband’s family. The Census Registration Law, which placed the lineal family as one unit of registration in the prewar era, was revised to make the nuclear family one unit. However, because the revision “did not go far enough” to make registration on an individual basis, the prewar ie notion remained in the hearts of the Japanese, and the legacy carries on today, Fukushima said. Japanese marriages went though a rapid change during the high economic growth period from around 1955 to 1973. The industrial shift from agriculture to manufacturing and services produced a large number of salaried employees living in urban areas who formed nuclear families. For many young women, who grew up seeing their mothers working hard on farms while raising children and doing housework at the same time, marrying an urban salaried man and staying at home was “a dream and a symbol of affluence,” said Yamada of Tokyo Gakugei University. It was also prestigious for men to have a full-time homemaker wife, and there was a widespread belief by both men and women that marriage brings a better life with a guaranteed income rise, Yamada said. Because of that belief, the population of those who stayed unmarried was strikingly low until the mid-1970s. The 1975 report on the National Census by the Management and Coordination Agency shows that only 6.1 percent of men and 5.3 percent of women were not married in the 35-39 age group, whereas in 1995, the figure rose to 22.6 percent for men and 10 percent for women. The high economic growth period was also the time when “love-based” marriages surpassed arranged unions, Yamada said. Wedding ceremonies began to diversify in type at around this time as well, with church weddings, in place of shrine weddings, increasing rapidly and overseas weddings beginning to gain popularity, said Yoshio Watabe, vice president of Watabe Wedding Corp., a major wedding service company. Watabe said the increasing shift to church weddings does not reflect a religious change in Japanese society but “a move to break out of traditional style of weddings that placed the value on marriage between the two families.” The 1973 oil crisis and following low economic growth are believed to have marked a turning point in views toward marriage. Slow economic growth meant not everyone could expect a better standard of living to come with marriage. With more women having higher education and careers, the average age of marriage began to rise in the mid-1970s, which had been stable at around 24 for women and 27 for men during the high-growth period, according to the 1998 Population Vital Statistics of the Health and Welfare Ministry. By the mid-1980s, single working men and women, who were typically raised by a salaried father and housewife mother, were already enjoying high standards of living, especially if they lived at home with their parents. Emiko Takeishi, a senior analyst on social development at NLI Research Institute, said many young people became reluctant to get married because they feared their living standards would decline. Because the idea of “an appropriate age for marriage” was losing ground, marriage became an “option,” not a necessity or social norm, she said. As views toward marriage diversified, ideas about divorce also changed, Takeishi said. “People now feel that they don’t have to stay married if they don’t like each other,” she said. A public opinion poll on divorce conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office in 1997 shows that more than 50 percent of both men and women supported the idea that a couple should divorce if they are not satisfied with each other, whereas in 1972, the support rate stood at around 20 percent. The divorce rate, which hit a postwar low of 0.73 per 1,000 people in 1963, started to rise in the mid-1970s, peaking at 1.94 in 1998, according to the Population Vital Statistics. Another example of changing views about marriage is calls for revising the Civil Code to legally recognize separate family names between a married couple. The issue gained momentum when Japan ratified the U.N. Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1985, and enacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in the following year. In February 1996, the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council submitted a recommendation to the justice minister that a married couple be given the choice as to whether they change their family name to either the husband’s or wife’s, or keep their family names separate. The revision of the Civil Code in this regard, however, has not been discussed in the Diet because of sharp opposition from conservative lawmakers. At a Liberal Democratic Party judicial affairs division meeting in May 1996, calls against the separate name choice law echoed the room with one saying “allowing separate family names for a married couple would lead to a collapse of families,” and another saying “women’s social participation has improved without changing the law.” Miyoko Nagatsu, a professor of family relations at Gunma University, said the change of the family name for working women could be “an extreme disadvantage” because the wife could well be mistaken for a different person. Nagatsu said the “deep-rooted” idea about marriage based on the ie system has maintained the widespread practice that women change their family names when they marry. As of 1998, 97.2 percent of married women changed their family names to the husband’s, according to the Population Vital Statistics. Older generations still think “a daughter is sent out to the groom’s family, and a son brings in the bride to his family,” Nagatsu said. “With more women having professional jobs and ideas about marriage diversifying, it is natural that people are increasingly calling for the separate name choice law,” she said.
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