• The Associated Press

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A group of people has filed a lawsuit challenging a civil law that effectively stops women from keeping their surnames when they marry.

The 113-year-old law requires married couples to choose just one surname for the man and woman to share, and custom means it is usually the man’s.

The lawsuit alleging this violates the right to equality under the Constitution is drawing attention to the rights of women in a country where they are underrepresented in corporate, academic and political ranks and still expected to do most of the homemaking and child-rearing.

The five plaintiffs — four women and the partner of one of them — are seeking a combined ¥6 million in damages from the government.

They are claiming distress and demanding that local government offices accept marriage certificates that list their separate surnames.

They and their supporters say the lawsuit filed Monday in the Tokyo District Court is the first to challenge the surname requirement in the civil code.

The case also presents a challenge to Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s struggling administration and his Democratic Party of Japan, which had promised legislation allowing separate surnames. The effort has stalled in the face of opposition by conservatives in and outside the DPJ and due to pressing issues, including the economy, tax and social security reforms.

Kyoko Tsukamoto, 75, a retired teacher from Toyama, said she has waited more than 50 years for the law to change, organizing petitions and lobbying Diet lawmakers.

Now she is losing patience. By tradition, she had to use her husband’s surname, Kojima, on their marriage certificate, which means she must also use it on any other legal documents. She can use her maiden name only for private purposes.

“I don’t have much time left,” Tsukamoto said. “I want to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto.”

Japan is the only one of the Group of Eight industrialized nations that requires married couples to have the same family name. China and South Korea also allow married women to have different surnames from their husbands’.

“For those who seek to keep separate surnames, the forcible use of one surname between couples is a serious human rights violation,” said Yoko Sakamoto, a civil activist who supports the legal action.

A growing number of Japanese women, including those who have advanced in corporate and academic ranks, want the same right. Many already use their maiden names as nicknames at work.

Another plaintiff is Emie Kayama, a freelance writer who married in 2000. After repeated inconveniences, she and her husband filed for divorce so she could legally use her maiden name. The couple are still together and plaintiffs in the case.

“We all should have a right to decide whether to get married or change our names,” she wrote in a statement. “There should be an option to get married without forcing anyone to drop his or her surname.”

It is very unusual for a couple to use the wife’s surname, for instance if she is an only child and there is pressure to carry on the family name, or if it would benefit the couple financially.

In 2009, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women urged Japan to amend the code and drop the one-surname requirement as discriminatory. Japan is a signatory to the convention.

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