• Kyodo

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After heated debate among ruling party lawmakers, the government failed to include a commitment to allowing married couples to use different surnames in its basic gender equality promotion policy approved Friday.

The new five-year policy also pushed back the goal of having women occupy around 30% of managerial positions to “as early as possible in the 2020s” from the initial deadline of this year, with the country continuing to lag behind other nations in narrowing gender gaps.

Hopes had been growing that different surnames would be allowed, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took office in September, suggested in November he remains committed to introducing the option for married couples.

But Suga made no reference to the issue Friday, saying at a meeting on gender equality, “We will aim for a society without a gender bias in leadership positions, fully reflecting the voices of women.” He also vowed to eradicate violence against women.

The Civil Code requires a married couple to share a surname, and conventionally, the burden has largely fallen on women to change names after marriage.

The draft gender equality promotion policy had included wording in support of different surnames, but such language was dropped amid opposition from conservative lawmakers. The basic policy merely pointed out that, as many women continue working after marriage, the current system presents an obstacle in their daily lives.

In many cases, women continue using their maiden names at work if they remain at the same company after marriage.

“The government will further study” whether to introduce the different surname system “while monitoring discussions in the Diet and taking into consideration judicial decisions,” the policy said.

The Supreme Court ruled in December 2015 that the current Civil Code provision regarding surnames is constitutional, saying it treats men and women equally and that the use of a single surname by members of the same family is an established practice in Japanese society.

The government policy also made explicit mention of the worries of conservative politicians, saying that “sufficient attention should be paid to opinions that (the different surname system) may have an impact on family unity as well as children.”

Members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party headed by Suga are divided over the issue. Conservatives who cherish traditional values are adamantly opposed to separate surnames, while proponents call for legislation to allow them.

Seiko Hashimoto, the minister in charge of gender equality and an LDP House of Councilors member, is in favor of introducing the option of different surnames.

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has also called for a change, saying the current system is discriminatory toward women. Surveys in recent years, meanwhile, have shown strong public support for the option of retaining surnames after marriage.

As for the percentage of women in managerial posts, the government set its target of 30% by 2020 in 2003, but the rate remained low at 14.8% as of last year.

The new basic policy sets goals for women’s participation in various fields, aiming for women to make up 35% of candidates for national and unified local elections by 2025, 12% of executives at companies listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange by 2022 and 20% of school principals by 2025.

As part of efforts to strengthen measures to deal with sexual violence, the new basic policy stated the government’s plan to enable the purchase of an emergency contraceptive pill without a prescription on condition that recipients take it in the presence of specially trained pharmacists.

The morning-after pill, already allowed over-the-counter in dozens of countries, is currently only available with a doctor’s prescription in Japan.

In 2019, Japan occupied last place among major advanced economies in the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap rankings, standing at 121st among 153 countries, a record low for the country.

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