DPJ wavers on maiden names law

Women already using surnames despite registry contradictions

by Michiko Munakata and Masato Ichinose

Kyodo News

Unlike former conservative Liberal Democratic Party governments, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan has long backed a plan to allow a husband and wife to keep their respective surnames.

But the ruling bloc — the DPJ, Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) — still remains sharply divided on the issue.

Advocates of the proposed plan are growing impatient because they see the window of opportunity getting smaller.

Public concern is growing that inaction will breed confusion as it has become increasingly common for women to try to use their maiden names, while organizations vary in their response to the matter.

Minako Yoshii, 33, who married Masatomo Tani, 33, eight years ago, routinely uses her maiden name. Yoshii, a resident of Seika, Kyoto Prefecture, uses it when she works as a lecturer at a junior college, even though her census register shows her surname as Tani.

The surname of her two sons is Tani but their friends at nursery school find nothing strange about the boys’ mother being called Yoshii. “Use of nonregistered surnames has already become common practice,” she said.

While the government is still far from granting many women’s wish by revising the Civil Code, married women are going by their maiden names on an increasing number of occasions.

According to civic group mNet Information Network for Amending the Civil Code, there are examples of women who open bank accounts, have credit cards issued, file tax returns and pay utility bills under their maiden names.

There are women who work as doctors under their maiden names, even though their medical license certificates bear their husbands’ surnames. Some schools, meanwhile, let their students go by their mothers’ maiden names.

Some women even have their maiden names on their health insurance cards. One doctor expressed dismay, asking, “Should I sign a death certificate bearing an unregistered name if someone known only by her maiden name dies?”

Miki Okabe, leader of another group lobbying for a change to the law to allow couples to use their own surnames, said, “It is imperative to legislate a new system to avoid confusion.”

The push for the proposed system gathered momentum in 1996, when the Legislative Council, an advisory organ for the justice minister, proposed a Civil Code change to create a new name system and called for legislation more accommodative to people’s increasingly diverse values. The proposal was shelved at the time as it met with stiff opposition from the LDP.

However, the situation changed when the DPJ-led government was formed last September. Expectations for amending the Civil Code grew as Keiko Chiba from the DPJ became justice minister and Mizuho Fukushima, chief of the SDP, state minister in charge of gender equality. Both of them have long led the drive to amend the law.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama earlier said, “I’m in favor of the law change in principle and it is not premature (to introduce a new name system) because it has been debated for a long time.”

Nonetheless, the Cabinet was unable to agree on the proposed law change by the target date of March 12 due to divisions among government ministers.

Shizuka Kamei, state minister for postal and financial affairs and leader of Kokumin Shinto, is a staunch opponent of the proposed system. He earlier said, “I don’t think it’s good (for married couples) to use different surnames when family bonds are weakening.”

Kamei has not budged an inch on the issue and has even hinted at pulling his party from the ruling coalition if the law is amended.

Kamei is “courting support from conservatives attached to traditional values by setting his party apart from the DPJ to improve Kokumin Shinto’s chances of survival in the upcoming election of the House of Councilors,” a member of one of the ruling parties said.

Concern about the fractious state of the coalition is also making some DPJ members balk at forcing the surname issue onto the government’s agenda. The DPJ also finds itself in a weak position after suffering losses in local elections and seeing its ratings plunge due to funding scandals involving Hatoyama and DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa.

One DPJ lawmaker said, “We’ll lose conservative votes if we take up the surname issue in the election.”

Still, even opponents of changing the name system argue that the matter should not be left unattended any longer.

“Much turmoil has been created due to use of maiden names by married women,” said Sanae Takaichi, a female LDP member of the House of Representatives. “The issue should be addressed as soon as possible through the political process.”

The public is split down the middle on the issue. A poll conducted by the Japan Public Opinion Survey Association last December found 49 percent of the respondents in support of legislation to allow married couples to bear separate surnames, and 48 percent against. But among women in their 20s and 30s, 66 percent favored the proposed name system, while 32 percent were against.