Jill Layton
December 14, 2015 11:41 am

When a woman and a man get married in Japan, it’s against the law for them to have different surnames. The outdated law was passed in 1896, and dictates that couples must adopt the same last name to legally register their marriage. The law doesn’t specifically say if the man or woman needs to change their last name (gay marriage isn’t legal in all of Japan yet, but we imagine that’ll be a whole other legal situation), but 96% of women currently take their husband’s last name.

Many conservatives in Japan say that allowing different last names within a family unit would be a major threat to society and could damage family ties. A group of five women in Japan are now getting a lot of attention for suing the government on the grounds that the name-changing law is unconstitutional.

Two courts in Japan have so far ruled against the women and on December 16, a third Japanese court will announce its decision on whether or not married couples can have different last names. The decision is expected to support prime minister Shinzo Abe’s initiative to encourage more women to start working to help stabilize the diminishing workforce. Despite the push, any legal change is being opposed by members of his conservative ruling party

“Names are the best way to bind families,” Masaomi Takanori, a constitutional scholar, told NHK public television. “Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order and the basis for social welfare.”

But for women, particularly those fighting to keep their surnames, none of that is as important as being respected.

“By losing your surname … you’re being made light of, you’re not respected … It’s as if part of your self vanishes,” Kaori Oguni, one of the women involved in the lawsuittold The Guardian.

The five women suing the government aren’t the only ones who want the change. Shunsuke Serizawa, a social commentator on gender and family roles is also on board. 

“The world is more oriented towards individuals now,” Serizawa said. “Separate surnames is a natural extension.”

Many working women deal with the annoyance and burden of having two names: their married name for legal use and their professional name for professional use.

“If changing surnames is so easy, why don’t more men do it?” Oguni said. “The system is one that says, basically, if you’re not willing to change, you shouldn’t be getting married.”

Some couples take matters into their own hands by not registering their marriage so they can keep separate names, but that option creates complications over parental and inheritance rights.

Others question why keeping their last names is so important to women. Kyoko Tsukamoto, another plaintiff who kept her maiden name, provides a genuine and fair reason for wanting to keep her maiden name — because she simply wants to.

Tsukamoto has been with her husband since 1960 and married him when their first child was born so the child would be legitimate. The couple then divorced so she could maintain her maiden name, and then remarried to have another child, but her husband refused a second divorce.

“I was born Tsukamoto, and I want to die Tsukamoto,” the 80-year-old said.

And that reason should be good enough.

“I was born Tsukamoto, and I want to die Tsukamoto,” the 80-year-old said.

And that reason should be good enough.

Related reading: 

The lessons I learned when I decided to change my name

Why I’m glad I kept my last name when I got hitched

(Featured image via FLICKR/J3SSL33)

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