Kyodo News Before Akiko Orita got married in the fall of 1998, she planned to have an equal partnership with her husband, rather than, in her words, “an absorbed merger.”
But she faced a problem: the Civil Code.
Under it, Orita and her husband would not have been able to keep their separate surnames.
In addition, she objected to the requirement that married couples indicate a “head of household” when registering their marriage.
Her husband, Yusuke Doi, recalled, “I thought it strange to force her to do something she didn’t like.”
So Orita and Doi, both 26 and researchers living in Yokohama, agreed not to register their marriage.
They are among a growing number of young couples in Japan who, when it comes to marriage and choosing surnames, are choosing to skirt the rules of the Civil Code, which they see as out of step with the times.
Five years back, a government advisory panel recommended revising the code, including measures that would allow married couples to maintain separate surnames and abolish discrimination against children born outside of wedlock.
No legislative action, however, has been forthcoming. The reason: opposition to the changes from members of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
Even so, the numbers of common-law marriages and married women choosing to keep their own surnames continue to rise, underscoring the code’s increasingly outdated provisions on marriage.
“Compared with five years ago when the Legislative Council (an advisory panel to the justice minister) made the recommendation, inquiries about separate names are now made in very concrete terms, indicating wives are actually using their former surnames or are going to do so,” lawyer Mutsuko Yoshioka said. “The nature of marriages is becoming more diverse.”
As for Orita and Doi, prior to their wedding ceremony they managed to gain the consent of their parents over their plans, which the parents had originally objected to. The couple also visited other relatives to gain their understanding.
There were some bureaucratic hurdles as well.
Since her marriage was not registered, Orita was referred to as a “lodger” in the “relationship” column in the couple’s certificate of residence.
But after learning that the terms “(unregistered) wife” or “(unregistered) husband” are also valid entries, they had the certificate revised.
The change made them eligible for publicly funded housing and family discounts on cellphone contracts, among other benefits.
For many working women, the Civil Code’s provision that forces married couples to choose a single surname is a major source of frustration.
For instance, a 36-year-old married female company employee of Kawasaki said she continues to use her former surname to head off any confusion in the event she gets divorced.
Yet she said the hassles of maintaining two surnames are greater than she had imagined.
Among the problems she has encountered are not being easily able to prove her identity when receiving registered mail and being barred from using an air travel ticket bought under her former surname, as it differed from the name in her passport.
“I am going to register my divorce because I am tired of having to do this,” she said.
The move seems more motivated by pragmatism than emotion.
Although her husband lives in faraway Hokkaido, she said, “As far as I’m concerned, he is my husband.”
Another problem for common-law couples can be children.
Their children are officially regarded as having been born outside of marriage and are thus denied certain rights, including those involving inheritance.
One woman, 34, a former resident of Kyoto in a common-law marriage, registered her marriage shortly before giving birth in 1997. Three days after her child was born, she registered her divorce, in a move aimed at benefiting her child.
The plan proved successful after the couple moved to Tokyo and tried to find a nursery school for the child.
The child was accepted, as the applications for children registered in their fathers’ family registers were given priority by the school.
Such paper divorces — conducted for the sake of the couples’ children — are becoming increasingly common.
“I have an acute sense that the marriage system is dying,” the Tokyo mother said.
Five years since the Legislative Council issued its recommendations, new efforts to update the Civil Code are emerging, even among some LDP legislators.
Members of the LDP and its two ruling coalition partners have formed a team to look into the matter.
In addition, about 20 Diet members, from both ruling and opposition camps, took part in a rally in March urging that the revisions go forward.
Meanwhile, a group of Tokyo residents has formed a network to provide information on the proposed revisions, and the group has begun publishing a biweekly news letter called “mNet News” to report related Diet activities and introduce high-profile figures who are pushing for the changes.
Network member Yoko Osawa said: “Family structures are becoming more diverse. We hope our news can be used for revising the legislation to bring it into the 21st century.”
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