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Allow different surnames for married couples

by Toko Shirakawa

There are diverse forms of partnership and family from country to country. Some countries accept same-sex marriage; others do not. Systems of families and couples have been renewed as societies progress. Many countries let married couples use different surnames. In some nations, couples combine their surnames. Japan is the sole country in which husband and wife are legally obliged to use the same surname. Germany, for example, in 1993 revised its law to allow married couples to use different surnames.

Events in January have given rise to hopes that things may change in Japan. Two married couples, among them Yoshihisa Aono, president of software development company Cybozu Inc., filed lawsuits with the Tokyo District Court, charging that the Family Registry Law, which prohibits Japanese couples from having different surnames whey they marry, violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality under the law.

Aono, who adopted his wife’s surname upon marriage at her request, says he had to spend ¥810,000 to change the names on his stock shares. He also had to update his credit cards and bank accounts. He still goes by the name Aono in his daily life, but says he encounters many inconveniences, such as mistaken identity when he makes hotel and airline reservations.

Many women have to endure the same inconveniences. In Japan, 94 percent of women adopt their husband’s surname. In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Civil Code provision requiring the same surname for married couples. The plaintiffs in the lawsuits had argued that as it’s mostly women who change their surnames upon marriage, the law runs counter to the principle of gender equality.

But in the latest lawsuits, the plaintiffs argue that in marriages between Japanese and foreigners, couples are allowed to have different surnames if they wish. Therefore, treating Japanese couples differently violates the Constitution, which guarantees equality under the law.

Until Aono filed his lawsuit, the idea that a man running a company would face inconveniences as a result of changing his surname upon marriage probably hadn’t been given any thought. Yet a female friend of mine, who is also a company president, asked her husband to adopt her surname upon marriage since the company is registered in her name. Another female friend of mine said she would not register her marriage until the same surname rule is changed.

It is high time that husband and wife are allowed to adopt different surnames. As a journalist who covered marriages in Japan, I understand the difficulties involved in marriage, particularly in rural areas. People who often help arrange marriages in those areas lament that these days only the eldest sons and eldest daughters of families remain in the area and all of them care about continuing the family line so it’s increasingly hard to introduce prospective marriage partners from local communities.

In Japan, where children born to unmarried couples account for a mere 2 percent of the total, marriage is a hurdle for young people if they want to have families. In mostly conservative rural areas, many of them are expected to carry on the family name. A man needs a woman who will agree to adopt his family’s surname when they marry, and a woman needs a man who will either adopt her surname or be adopted into her family upon marriage. A marriage between an eldest son and an eldest daughter — or when they’re the only child in the family — might cause trouble between their respective parents if both families insist that their children retain their surnames. In some cases this prevents the couple from marrying.

A single woman I know — who only has sisters and is the eldest — said she has not been able to marry because her parents told her that their family line would end if she did not marry someone who would agree to be adopted into the family. She is now contemplating ways to break the stalemate that would convince her parents — such as living together with a partner without getting married. Even in this day and age, there are still many sons and daughters — particularly in areas outside of Tokyo — who cannot say no to their parents.

Supporters of allowing married couples to use different surnames are not limited to women with progressive ideas. That option may prove convenient for those wishing to protect traditional forms of family. If the government is hoping to have as many couples marry as possible and have children, it should be rational to eliminate any policy that stands in the way.

It won’t come as a surprise if lawmakers elected from constituencies in conservative farming areas call for allowing married couples to have different surnames. Sooner or later, somebody might start saying that their rural communities will be doomed because marriages between eldest sons and eldest daughters will be difficult unless the same surname requirements are abolished.

A recent event organized to support Aono’s lawsuit was attended by people with a variety of ideas about the same surname requirement. One man said he decided to adopt his wife’s surname when they married because his wife was one of only five people in Japan with that surname. There were also women who said they wanted to retain their own surnames.

Some people argue that married couples use the same surname because that’s the tradition in Japan. Chuo University professor Masahiro Yamada, a leading figure in the studies on family laws, disagrees. According to Yamada, in the past people traditionally kept their own family’s surnames in principle when they married — just like their Chinese and Korean counterparts — and before the Meiji Restoration, most commoners in Japan never had surnames in the first place.

Even if married couples are allowed to use different surnames, nothing will change for couples who want to share the same surname. Because allowing that choice would cause no problem for the great majority of people, it is discriminatory to force the small minority to face disadvantages.

In a recent Cabinet Office poll, 42.5 percent of respondents supported allowing married couples to use different surnames, 29.3 percent felt there was no need for such a change and 24.4 percent said that although couples should use the same surname, people should be allowed to use their pre-marriage surnames in daily life. Opposition to allowing different surnames was strong among respondents in their 60s to 80s.

Citing Japan’s Civil Code provision, the United Nations advised Japan three times to allow women to use different surnames from those of their husbands. Innovation is required not only in business. There should be innovation to enable the family system to keep up with the times.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.