Tears welled up in Kaori Oguni’s eyes as she recalled the heartache she felt at what was supposed to be one of the happiest moments of her life — that is, when she and her husband registered their marriage at a Tokyo ward office in 2006.
“As I was completing my paperwork, all I could think of was, ‘OK, that’s it then. This is officially goodbye to my family name,’ ” Oguni, a 41-year-old mother of one, said in a recent interview. “A family name is an important part of my identity. Losing it was painful.”
Oguni is one of five people suing the government over what they call a “sexist” civil code that has traditionally resulted in Japanese women changing their surnames upon marriage. It requires Japanese couples to register their marriage under a single surname.
The plaintiffs are now awaiting the Supreme Court’s first-ever judgment on the matter, slated for Wednesday, in which a judge will rule on the constitutionality of the law.
Should the top court declare it unconstitutional, it would put strong pressure on the government to pursue a swift legal revision, ending a century-old tradition that has at times disadvantaged women at the workplace.
It would also be a slap in the face for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, which has pushed for gender equality but opposes the idea of allowing married couples to retain separate names — on the grounds that doing so would hurt the family bond.
Oguni and other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2011 after being fed up with years of inaction by the Diet. Being forced to choose one surname upon marriage, they say, infringes on their right to individual dignity and freedom of marriage.
Oguni also deems the law sexist.
Although the law technically does not specify which surname couples should adopt, studies in the past 40 years show that more than 95 percent of newlyweds have opted for the husband’s name. Critics say this amounts to discrimination against women.
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has repeatedly called on the government to “take immediate action” to amend the law.
Ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, Oguni was upbeat.
“My hopes are high,” she said, although both district and high courts have ruled against the plaintiffs. “For years, our government has upheld a law that has cemented the conservative notion in our society that women are supposed to change their names if they want to get married. The revision of the law would change that and empower women like us.”
Oguni, who uses her maiden name, plans to reinstate the name to her family registration document if the law is amended.
She asked that her current legal surname — that of her husband’s family — be withheld for privacy.
Now a mother, Oguni remembers being shocked when, as a teenager, she first detected society’s male-chauvinist traditions.
As a junior high school student, she overheard a remark her mother made while scanning a list of names of female friends she was going to meet at a reunion of university alumni.
“Oh my. I don’t recognize any of them because they’ve all changed their family names after marriage,” her mother said.
It was nearly two decades later, when Oguni decided to get married at age 32, that her childhood dismay revisited her: It was now her turn, she thought, to relinquish her family name.
Despondent, Oguni asked her fiance which surname he wanted to adopt.
He thought about it for days, and answered that he didn’t want to lose his name, either. At one point, it almost looked like the two had to do what couples with the same dilemma usually do: live together, but remain legally unmarried.
That option, known as jijitsukon (de facto marriage), ultimately did not suit her, and Oguni begrudgingly decided to register her marriage under her husband’s surname.
“Leaving your marriage unregistered means you will find yourself at a significant disadvantage in emergency situations, such as when your partner is hurt in an accident and needs surgery. I was scared that I wouldn’t be treated as a family member at times like that,” Oguni said.
Today, Oguni, an administrative scrivener in Tokyo, continues to introduce herself to clients using her maiden name, Kaori Oguni.
Using her maiden name at the workplace, she said, poses little inconvenience except on the occasions when she needs to sign notary documents using her legal name.
“Being able to go by my maiden name at work has truly been helpful to maintain my sanity. I’m sure I would’ve lost it if I was with one of those Japanese companies where your boss uses your married name against your will, or forces you to use it, once you’re married.”
A mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Oguni dismisses as “improbable” the possibility that children whose parents have different surnames would become a target of bullying at school or get “confused” — as long as, she said, children adopt either of their father or mother’s surname and no inconsistency exists in the names of siblings.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.