The Supreme Court on Dec. 16 turned down a complaint by women that a Civil Code provision that does not allow a married couple to use different surnames violates the Constitution.

The plaintiffs were not demanding that all couples use separate surnames. They were instead arguing that people should be given the freedom not to change their surnames when they marry if they so wish. They said that this freedom relates to the very dignity of individuals — a core principle of the Constitution. People who want to have the same surname as their spouse should of course be free to do so if they so wish. But the system of marriage should also be open to people who do not want to use the same surname, the plaintiffs argued. Why did their complaint go unheeded by the top court justices?

A majority of the 15 justices sitting on the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench said that allowing the choice of different surnames for married couples is not irrational and urged the Diet to discuss the matter. However, the plaintiffs had turned to the court because the majority of lawmakers in the Diet did not understand the issue. The Supreme Court was simply passing the buck. Behind the ruling, I believe, was the bureaucratic consideration of the justices that a ruling declaring the same-surname provision unconstitutional was certain to trigger strong reactions from those in power and would cause trouble in the future. The top court is not qualified to call itself a watchdog of the Constitution if it is unable to protect the freedom of a minority against the ignorance and prejudice of the majority. Anyway, this ruling seems to reflect the problem of conformism prevalent in Japanese society.

Unlike the Western nations which cherish individualism, people in Japan have a tendency to rejoice in everybody taking the same action and sharing similar attitudes. Built on that ground of conformism are conventions deriving from the domination of men over women. Testifying to this is the fact that as many as 96 percent of married couples use the husband’s surname. Since many women have started to take on major roles in society, it is not uncommon for them to use their maiden name in their job. But it is women who mostly bear the brunt of the same-surname rule in official matters ranging from obtaining a driver’s license to declaring taxes and going through social insurance procedures.

Japan’s conservatives care so dearly about the nation’s traditional family system. The right-wing movement that has become quite vocal over the past two decades or so has campaigned against allowing separate surnames for married couples by saying that such a system would destroy families. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is closely aligned to such a movement. The prime minister himself in 2010 made an utterly off-the-mark statement that separate surnames for husband and wife is a Communist idea. In fact, the rule requiring same surnames for married couples has nothing to do with tradition. In Japan, having a surname was a privilege of the samurai class for a long time. It was only after the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s that common people were allowed to use surnames. Therefore, the same surname for a married couple is a fabricated tradition. The argument that separate surnames would lead to the collapse of families is also a prejudice, not based on any evidence.

Japanese schools teach children the virtue of cooperation. A minority who behave differently from others — children and adults alike — can be the target of bullying. There were times when such conformism improved the performance of a group of people. One example would be the typical management policies of Japanese companies during the rapid postwar economic growth. In a group where conformity is given priority, however, there will be no self-innovation or breakthroughs. The so-called lost two decades of the Japanese economy is perhaps attributable to the lack of extraordinary characters capable of rejuvenating the nation’s systems. The lingering societal suppression of women is one manifestation of this problem.

The recent trend in which growing ranks of youths choose not to marry and women give birth to fewer children is not unrelated to the social conformism that tends to suppress women’s freedom and all people’s individuality. Of course, economic factors such as unstable employment and low-paying jobs also play a major role in the low marriage and fertility rates. But in addition to that, the government and the majority in society continue to bind women to old family values while at the same time imposing on them selfish desires that women should play greater roles both in the labor force to drive economic growth and as the manpower to take charge of raising children and caring for the elderly. It seems as if women were putting up a quiet resistance against a society that refuses to recognize them as free individuals.

Japan’s conservative rule will likely continue as long as people who look suspiciously at Abe as he loudly touts slogans such as “women shine” for the sake of economic growth — while he himself refuses to recognize women’s due freedom — remain a minority in society.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.

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