The nation’s women are going through an identity crisis.

They’re fighting to overturn a law that bars married couples from having different last names, which creates complications for women who have established careers and reputations.

About 600,000 Japanese couples wed every year and the law says that after marriage a couple must have the same surname. Technically, men may take their wives’ family name. Yet in practice, only about 4 percent do.

Some women say they feel like they’re wiping away their identity after getting married.

“Being forced to change your name is nothing more than a violation of human rights,” said Miki Haga, 29, who is planning to study in the U.K. this year. She legally became Miki Ishizawa two years ago when her husband didn’t want to change his name.

The issue roared into the public debate during the campaign for the July 21 Upper House election, with opposition parties making gender equality a key part of their platform against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP bloc retained its majority, though female candidates did make somewhat limited gains.

In a striking moment, Abe was the only person on a debate stage earlier this month who didn’t raise his hand when asked about support for changing the law. His conservative party argues that the current law is equal to both men and women, and it’s a matter of tradition.

“If you believe traditions are important, then there’s no need to change the law,” said Shigeharu Aoyama, an LDP Upper House lawmaker.

But others point out that it’s not exactly an ancient tradition. Before the current law was passed in 1898, Japanese people didn’t typically use surnames. In 1948, it became legal for couples to choose either spouse’s surname, but they still had to stick with one. And marriages to foreign nationals aren’t subject to the law.

The surname issue is only one of a number of ways the country lags behind on gender equality. Japan has the third-highest gender-pay gap among OECD countries and women are poorly represented in business and politics. They hold only 4 percent of managerial positions, 2 percent of seats on boards of directors and about 10 percent of the seats in the Lower House. The #MeToo movement has had difficulty gaining traction. Although Abe has generated support for womenomics — the idea that more women working will help the overall economy — progress has been slow.

A government survey released last year showed 42.5 percent of adults supported changing the surname law — about 7 percentage points higher than five years earlier — while 29.3 percent opposed the move.

The United Nations has pressured Japan to lift the restriction on surnames, a practice that has led to some unusual marital arrangements — even divorces on paper, while couples stay together.

Others choose to live in the equivalent of a domestic partnership. Yuri Koizumi and Hiroshi Tanaka have been living together for 26 years, raising a son without getting married. Koizumi said she couldn’t accept changing the name she was born with. Meanwhile, Tanaka, a forest science researcher, worried about what would happen to his academic reputation if he no longer used the same name as the one on his published works.

They can’t take advantage of the same tax deductions as married couples and legally only one of them is allowed to have custody of their son. And they get tired of explaining to new friends and coworkers that they really are husband and wife, and their kids really are theirs, even though they have different last names. The situation is that uncommon in Japanese society.

Courts have upheld the law several times in recent years.

In 2015, the Supreme Court said the law didn’t violate the Constitution. A Tokyo court earlier this year ruled against a similar challenge, and the plaintiffs plan to appeal.

One of those plaintiffs is Yoshihisa Aono, the chief executive officer of software company Cybozu. He legally took his wife’s last name when they married in 2001 but continued to use his birth name professionally. His shares are registered under his legal last name — Nishibata — leading to confusion among investors about why the CEO doesn’t appear to own a stake in the company. And rules on which name should be on contracts vary by country.

The law has prompted some people to go by their birth names in public, while using their spouse’s last name on official documents. That can also be tricky. Women worry about whether their academic degrees will be recognized abroad, while companies sometimes mistakenly book flights or hotel rooms for employees under the name they use in everyday life, rather than the legal name they need to use when checking in.

The continued support for the law is based in part on an antiquated Japanese ideal that “individuals are second to the masses,” said Toshihiko Noguchi, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs.

Abe’s solution has been to encourage employers to allow workers to informally use the last names they were born with. This November, people will be allowed to list both last names on certain government ID cards, allowing them to open bank accounts or take out loans with their surname of choice.

It’s not seamless. Haga gets questioned at airports by border officials who don’t understand why both names are listed on the passport. She tweeted her frustration, and the Foreign Ministry responded and pledged to publish an explanation online.

She says every time she filled out another form to legally make the switch — on her bank accounts, passport, credit cards and more — a bit of herself faded. Her husband says he’s sympathetic about all the paperwork she had to go through and believes the law should be changed, but he says he wouldn’t have reversed roles.

“My husband didn’t have to do anything,” Haga said. “It didn’t feel fair.”

The surname issue in Japan: a history

  • 1898: Meiji Civil Code enacts and sets the condition that “married couples use the surname of the house,” under which the use of the same surname among such couples took effect.
  • 1947: With an amendment to the Meiji Civil Code, a rule on the use of a married couple’s surname is changed to: “A husband and wife shall adopt the surname of the husband or wife in accordance with that which is decided at the time of marriage.”
  • 1985: Japan ratifies the Convention of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
  • 1996: The Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice submits a proposed revision to the Civil Code that includes the optional dual surname system. Ultimately, the bill is not submitted to the Diet.
  • 2003: The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women advises the Japanese government to ban discriminatory rules written in the Civil Code and repeatedly issues such advisories thereafter.
  • 2011: A group of five citizens from Tokyo, Toyama and Kyoto prefectures sue the government demanding national compensation over what they claim is the unconstitutionality of the Civil Code, losing the first trial session and an appeal.
  • 2015: In a first, the full bench of the Supreme Court rules that Article 750 of the Civil Code, which says that married couples use the same surname, is “constitutional.”
  • 2016: Four opposition parties jointly submit a bill to revise the Civil Code.
  • 2018: Yoshihisa Aono, the president of software development firm Cybozu Inc., and three others file a lawsuit against the government over the right to use premarital surnames.
  • March 25, 2019: The Tokyo District Court rejects the lawsuit led by Aono.
  • June 19: The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly adopts a petition to submit to the central government a statement that the use of different surnames among married couples in Japan be legalized.

Timeline from Kyodo added


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