/ |

What’s in a surname? It depends on who you ask

by Hiroaki Sato

When I saw The New York Times article “In Japan, more women fight to use their own names” (Oct. 24), I sent it to my niece Haruko. Haruko, married with a child, works for a Japanese government agency but seems to be doing fine retaining her “former surname,” as she calls it. She signs documents with foreign countries, and has already written a book for her employer, using the same name.

Her response was: “As someone using her former surname, the article strikes me as going a bit too far; it exaggerates,” adding, “Simple options will do.”

The Times article, written by Motoko Rich, starts portentously: “Japan’s Constitution promises gender equality, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he wants a society where all women can ‘shine.’ But many Japanese women say that is hard to do when they cannot even use their own surnames.”

Rich also wrote: “Among democratic countries in the developed world, Japan ranks low on gender equality in health, education, the economy and politics.”

When I wrote back, “Well, the N.Y. Times loves to point out how backward Japan is,” Haruko responded: “Japan’s ‘gender development index’ is lower than Sri Lanka that I cover (for my agency). It’s a fact that Japan is backward.”

She may have been referring to what Rich indicated as her source, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (2015). The report indeed places Sri Lanka at 73, Japan at 101. The actual “gender development index,” prepared by the United Nations (2014), in contrast, doesn’t put Japan that low, placing it at 20, Sri Lanka at 73, though still Japan doesn’t “shine.”

Assessments of this type, of course, can be very different by nature. This can be true of statistical analyses.

I arrived in the United States in the late 1960s, so naturally went through the “Ms. Decade.” I even submitted my translations of Japanese women’s poems to Ms., the magazine Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Hughes started in 1971, and one or two were taken. It was during that decade that feminists’ demand for women keeping their surname at marriage came to the fore, along with the idea of hyphenating it with that of their spouses.

So, how many American women keep their surname in marriage? The couple of surveys I’ve found via Politifact show wide discrepancies between them.

One of them is a 2007 Census Bureau study, “With This Name I Thee Wed: Women’s Marital Naming Choices.” Based on the 2004 households survey, it found just 6 percent in the United States had “non-conventional” marital names, and these names included not just surnames but hyphenated surnames and two surnames. This means that in the three decades since 1975 when, the census said, all states legalized women retaining “their birth surname at marriage,” the percentage of those who did so wasn’t really overwhelming.

The others are a Google Consumer Survey and an “analysis of N.Y. Times wedding announcements.” These were also cited in The Times article, “Maiden names, on the rise again” (June 27, 2015), to which Rich refers, to note that “only 1 in 5 American women keeps her surname when she marries.”

The Times analysis necessarily came with the caveat that these announcements “cover a select, less representative share of women.” After all, not many can afford to make wedding announcements in The New York Times. And that reminds me of the point the census study made: Among “the characteristics associated with non-conventional surname use” is “higher educational attainment, being other than white non-Hispanic.”

The study detailed what it meant: “Women with a master’s degree were 2.8 times more likely than those who had less than a bachelor’s to use a non-conventional surname, while women with a professional degree were 5.0 times more likely, and women with a doctorate were 9.8 times more likely.”

That evidently applies in Japan. My American lawyer friend in Tokyo told me: “All of the women attorneys at my law firm practice under their maiden names. Officially, of course, they take the names of their husbands.”

As it happens, when I was thinking about Rich’s article, I received a letter from my 93-year-old Korean friend in Pennsylvania, Yun-He Joo. We exchange traditional letters at a leisurely pace, once every several months. My last letter, in August, had mentioned a bit of my knowledge of Korean names. Joo expanded on them.

In Korea, “because it has received Chinese influence in all respects,” a woman can’t assume her husband’s surname at marriage, so her surname remained the father’s, Ban, until she and her husband became American citizens in the late 1970s. Requiring women to stay with their father’s name in marriage is a “discrimination against them,” Joo wrote, because in Korea, as in China, their children inherit their father’s surname.

That means that for all the “countless difficulties a woman goes through — menstruation, pregnancy, morning sickness for 10 months, life-or-death delivery, all as punishments because Eve tempted Adam — her surname disappears like dew as soon as she conceives.” Joo, a devout Christian, had five daughters.

In Spain, the matter is similar, with a difference. “Spanish women never change their surname and their children receive both the father’s and mother’s surnames,” my Irish writer friend Basia Rafael, who is now living in Spain, has written. “The children may also choose which of those surnames to use. Former President Zapatero chose his mother’s name over his father’s (Rodriguez).”

To go back to The Times article, Rich wrote that in the U.S. “there is still a strong social convention among heterosexual couples for wives to take their husbands’ names.”

If I may hazard a guess, perhaps for Rich, the ideal is a state where no one has a surname. In Japan most people did not, till the mid-19th century.

Hiroaki Sato is a poet, essayist and translator based in New York.