When Foreign Minister Taro Kono wrote on Twitter that he would order his ministry to look into the contentious issue of maiden names on passports in response to a tweet in early June, he may not have been aware of the minefield he was about to step into.

The issue has been a vexing one for some. And with female empowerment guidelines released this year by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledging to ease passport rules to allow for the full-fledged use of maiden names within the fiscal year, it is again being thrust into the national spotlight.

Japan is the only country in the world that doesn’t allow married couples to officially use different surnames, a Justice Ministry official told the Lower House’s Judicial Affairs Committee in March 2018. Rather, the country’s Civil Code requires married couples to choose either the surname of the wife or husband.

Premarital surnames can sometimes be used on passports, including when the person’s surname prior to marriage is academically prestigious or when the person has credible career-related reasons to use the name for work overseas, but the rules are complicated and have led to confusion.

In these cases, applicants can list both their premarital and legal surnames on their passports, with the former in brackets, a practice rarely, if ever, seen in other countries.

As a result, people with such passports often struggle to explain their situations when traveling abroad or registering for visas.

Miki Haga, a 29-year old living in Tokyo who has her maiden name included on her passport, recalled an encounter she had at a hotel in Cambodia.

“I was asked if I was really the person who booked the room,” she said. “I made a reservation with my maiden name, but because my current name is on the passport and my maiden name is in brackets, I had to explain what it meant.”

Kono’s order last month to look into the issue came in response to a tweet by Haga about the difficulties faced when using a passport that includes both her maiden and legal family name.

“I asked if there was any document published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that could explain my passport situation,” Haga told The Japan Times.

“I used the passport with the maiden name written in parentheses to apply for a U.K. student visa, but I was anxious that that could affect whether I got in,” she said.

Haga, who plans to study in Britain from September, says she is worried about whether her maiden name will be printed on her diploma, as she intends to continue using it for work.

“Something like an official explanatory letter of what the brackets mean is essential to avoid the prickly misunderstandings on foreign soil,” Haga wrote in the tweets that prompted Kono’s response.

The foreign minister has admitted that the current system could cause problems for travelers, though he has not specifically linked the issue to his government’s female empowerment goals.

“Since the system of listing the name in brackets, including the previous surname, on passports is unique to Japan, it could cause trouble from immigration authorities not familiar with such a system,” Kono wrote in a post to his official blog in June.

The ministry had said in April that the use of passports abroad, together with other forms of identification with different surnames, could leave individuals vulnerable to illegal activities, including fraud and identity theft. And in response to this, as well as Haga’s tweet, the ministry took action in June, releasing an explainer on its website in both English and Japanese.

“We are planning to distribute passport-size portable cards with a similar explanation for travelers as soon as possible,” an official with the ministry’s passport division said without giving further details.

The Foreign Ministry in mid-June also said that it would re-examine the passport application process for having surnames listed in parentheses. It will also re-examine the way it lists the names in order to avoid further trouble for passport holders with two surnames, according to Kono.

In the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as in most European countries, passports with an individual’s premarital surname can be used to travel abroad as long as they match the name printed on travel tickets.

The push in Japan comes on the back of a gradual loosening of restrictions on the common usage of premarital surnames in the country, and other ministries and agencies are also working to allow for the use of previous surnames on official documents.

In one example, applicants for passports featuring their premarital surnames are soon expected to be able to smoothly apply and no longer need to submit documents that certify past activities or work overseas so long as the previous legal name is confirmed in the person’s koseki (family registry).

Yet despite these moves, prior surnames will not be included in passports’ integrated circuit chips that contain personal data, including the holder’s name, birthdate, nationality and passport number, meaning that visa applications and overseas travel ticket purchases must be done using the name currently on the IC chip — regardless of whether or not an individual’s name has changed.

This also includes names added in brackets.

Procedures to add surnames will also be taken for both resident cards and individual number cards by November, a change expected to cost billions of yen, while the National Police Agency said in a June 13 notice that it is currently preparing to allow premarital surnames on driver’s licenses.

Naho Ida, director of Sentakuteki Fufu Bessei Zenkoku Chinjyo Action, a volunteer nongovernmental organization that promotes the rights of married couples to have separate surnames, says it is high time for the government to adopt a system that allows couples to select their surnames instead of the patchwork system allowing their use in certain exceptions.

“Billions of yen are being spent for something that does not fundamentally help us, and potentially invites problems abroad, which the government also recognizes,” she said. “As long as the Foreign Ministry’s concerns aren’t resolved, problems are going to increase, even if the surname application process is eased.”

But beyond saving tax dollars and preventing inconvenience, Ida says reforming the piecemeal approach currently in use would also further empower women.

“It’s no wonder that the validity of my Japanese passport could be questioned when I travel overseas,” said Ida, who has her maiden name written in brackets on her passport. “But when Prime Minister Abe talks about female empowerment, what he is really doing now is working against those pledges.”

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