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In setback for female empowerment, Tokyo court rejects teacher’s bid to use maiden name at work

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

The Tokyo District Court on Tuesday dismissed a bid by a recently married female teacher to use her maiden name at work on the grounds that the practice is not customary. It found no violation of her rights.

Critics, who noted that the three judges were all male, called the ruling “backward-thinking” and “out of touch” with the needs of working women in Japan.

The Civil Code does not allow couples to keep different surnames after marriage, but the use of maiden names in professional settings is widely accepted.

Tuesday’s ruling concerned a lawsuit brought by a teacher in her 30s at a private high school in Tokyo against her employer, Nihon University Daisangakuen.

“Using maiden names in the same manner as legal surnames is not deeply rooted in society,” presiding Judge Atsushi Onose said.

The judge added, preventing the teacher from using her maiden name “cannot be called a violation of her rights.”

The plaintiff, who has requested that her name be withheld, has worked at the junior and senior high schools affiliated with the university since 2003. She got married in 2013 and adopted her husband’s family name, but wished to use her maiden name in the classroom as she considers it part of her identity and because, as a researcher, she has published works under that name.

The school refused, arguing that “the legal name is the best way to identify an individual,” and allowing two names “would make management (of staff) cumbersome and could lead to a mix-up.”

While the court acknowledged the need to protect a woman’s right to use her maiden name, it said the school’s demand for use of legal names for work was “reasonable and necessary.”

The judges cited a 2015 online survey of 1,000 female workers in their 20s to 50s by the business daily Nikkei, which found that more than 70 percent of married women adopted their husbands’ names at work. They said this shows that the use of maiden names is not deep-rooted enough to merit change.

But a 2013 survey of 214 large firms by the Tokyo-based think tank Institute of Labor Administration found that 64.5 percent of employers allow staff to use maiden names. This was up from 45 percent in 2004 and 17.8 percent in 1995, according to the think tank.

Behind a surge in acceptance of maiden names in the workplace is a court case filed by a female university professor in the late 1980s. In the landmark case, the plaintiff, Reiko Sekiguchi, asked that she be allowed to use her maiden name for work. The case, which was settled out of court in 1998, paved the way for changes in policy at many employers, including universities and public schools.

Experts say the ruling also goes against the government’s drive to promote the wider use of maiden names in a bid to make workplaces more female-friendly. In August, the internal affairs ministry said it will revamp its registration system starting next fiscal year so married people can print their maiden names alongside their legal family names on My Number ID cards and residence cards.

Masayuki Tanamura, a professor of law at Waseda University, expressed shock at Tuesday’s ruling, calling it a reversal of recent advances for professional women.

He cited December’s Supreme Court ruling that dealt with the constitutionality of a century-old Civil Code provision requiring married couples to use the same name in official papers.

In that case, presiding Judge Itsuro Terada dismissed claims by five women seeking the right to retain their maiden names after marriage, saying the drawbacks of changing a name — such as professional disadvantages and a loss of identity — are mitigated by the fact that women are free to use their maiden names in daily life.

Tanamura speculated that the fact that all three judges in Tuesday’s case were male could have influenced their view. He called the ruling “out of touch with reality.”

“Of all places, schools should value the trust between teachers and students, and should respect personal character and integrity,” he said.

The plaintiff plans to appeal the ruling, and Tanamura expects the decision to be overturned by a higher court.

Sociologist Yuki Senda of Musashi University called the ruling “hard to believe,” given that, among universities, the use of maiden names poses no practical problems. “If I were the mother of a school girl contemplating which high schools to go to, I would rule the school out,” she said.