In Japan, the surname comes first. When a woman gets married — and yes, this is an issue that mainly affects women — she generally must change her name. Passports, credit cards and even formal introductions all need to change, too.
This isn’t a situation that only happens in this country, but Japan is the only nation that forces a couple to choose one joint surname, an idea that was reinforced on June 23 when the Supreme Court upheld a 2015 ruling that married couples must share a name.
More than a few members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party take a conservative view on the topic, arguing that different surnames could negatively impact family unity and, in turn, children. The LDP is divided, however, with some members in favor of choice. Meanwhile, other political parties, such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, call the decision “outdated.”
“This is unbelievable,” tweeted feminist Chizuko Ueno. “More people would get married if they could choose their own surnames. Who’s really breaking up the family?”
Ueno might be onto something. Model Saya Makino touched on the topic of surnames in an interview with fashion magazine Very in August of last year. The publication is geared toward young working mothers struggling to balance their personal and professional lives.
In the interview, she spoke about how she was expected to do the bulk of the housework and child care (she has three children) as her husband of 11 years was the primary wage earner in the marriage.
“I’m ready to move on to a new form of family,” she told Very. “I really like my husband and appreciate him, but I no longer want to use his surname. I think our family is ready for a freer way of thinking and to view me, the mother, as a person and an individual.”
To this end, Makino said she was preparing to make the switch from a “legal marriage” to a “de facto marriage,” which means filing for divorce and reclaiming her old surname (which she is still in the process of doing).
“My children and husband are on board with this,” she said. “We will all continue to live together, but fulfilling the traditional roles of mother and homemaker besides working full time, and assuming my husband’s surname, is no longer viable.”
Attorney and former TV newscaster Yukino Kikuma also alluded to this idea of identity when it came to having to change her name after getting married in her 40s. She told the Asahi Shimbun that she experienced a sense of panic when her original name disappeared from all legal and official documents.
“The only place where I got to keep my name was my business card,” she said. “In the eyes of Japanese law, a person called Yukino Kikuma was ceasing to exist. It was pretty scary.”
Makino and Kikuma aren’t alone. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports that when it conducted a survey on surnames six years ago, more than 50% of respondents were in favor of the current system. In a survey conducted by Nikkei in late March, however, the tables had been turned: Sixty-seven percent said that people should have the option to change or keep their surnames upon marriage. Notably, the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to cast a ballot for optional surnames. A whopping 84% of those between 18 and 39 voted for optional surnames, while that number dwindled to 55% for people 60 years and older.
The June 23 verdict also drew criticism from the business community, in particular from Yoshihisa Aono, the CEO of software company Cybozu. He took his wife’s surname, Nishihata, after marrying but uses his pre-marriage name for business purposes.
“Every time I sign a contract, I have to confirm with the legal department whether I can use my old surname or have to use my married name,” he told Tokyo Shimbun. “I always carry around two hanko (personal seals) for this purpose.”
“The LDP is a drag on the economy,” he later tweeted.
In the same Tokyo Shimbun piece, Dwango CEO Takeshi Natsuno said, “Both the business sector and the Japanese people stand to lose a lot under the current system. The current surname system burdens everyone, and spawns a lot of paperwork that has a negative impact on productivity.”
Since the Supreme Court ruling, Aono and other corporate bigwigs have been circulating a petition to reverse the verdict. As of the middle of July, they had received close to 650 signatures, including those from old-guard manufacturers such as Panasonic and Kagome.
The old guard of politics remains in need of convincing. Junya Tsutsui, a professor at Ritsumeikan University, told the online magazine President Woman, that “part of the reason that there’s so much resistance to changing the system is that many Japanese are misreading the situation.”
“They think that optional surnames mean that married couples must automatically have different surnames, which is not the case at all,” he continued, adding that the main obstacle is with politicians.
“To a conservative government, the family is sacrosanct,” he said. “They don’t want to mess around with the family because if they do, they stand to lose a huge chunk out of their support base.”
Tsutsui adds that the current law on similar surnames has only been around for
120 years. Prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, most people didn’t have surnames at all unless they were a part of the aristocratic or samurai classes.
“At 120 years, the law is a little too young to be called a tradition,” he told President Woman. “On the other hand, the modern Japanese family is changing rapidly, and in big ways. Enforcing an old system in this new era doesn’t make much sense. I hope that in the not too far-off future, society will provide everyone with the freedom to choose their own surnames.”
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