Why is it illegal for married couples to have different surnames in Japan?
31st May 2021
1896 saw the implementation and introduction of Japan’s civil code which included laws surrounding issues such as divorce and individuals with disabilities. The code also saw the implementation of the notion that married couples are legally required to share the same surname. Japan is now one of the very few industrialised countries to still have this law in place despite many people viewing it as being extremely discriminatory and archaic, with many previous laws being altered to fit a more progressive modern society. The civil code has never indicated which surname the couples are required to take, but it has been shown that 96% of married Japanese women end up taking their husband’s surname.
In previous years, many women’s rights activists have fought to change these laws. 2015 saw a supreme court ruling which deemed this law to be one which does not violate the constitution. This was in response to five women who attempted to sue the Japanese government for 6m yen (approximately €45,800). These women viewed this law as being unconstitutional and violated the civil rights of married couples, deeming them persistent emotional distress which prevented them from being able to remarry when they wanted to. Many conservative politicians and commentators argued that the removal of this law would take away from the strong traditional family unit Japan is known for and one which the country tends to prioritise.
“Masaomi Takanori, a constitutional scholar, responded to the lawsuit in a very traditional way stating his beliefs that names are the best to way to bind families and hold them together.”
The lawsuit was one which attracted controversy among the general public with 52% of the public believing it is the couples who deserve the right to be able to choose their surnames and whether they take each other’s. 34% of the public rejected the idea with many people believing this law should stay in place and not be altered.
The rejection of the lawsuit concluded that the only reason married couples could avoid this law was to not register their marriages. This is not the most feasible idea as it raises many problems related to parental rights and to issues of inheritance or wealth. This has left many married couples to still register their marriage despite the complications with having to share the same surname.
This law is one which many women’s right activists are still fighting against despite the major blow they suffered in 2015 and the failure of the lawsuit in 2011. One big blow to women in Japan is the rejection by the Minister for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, Tamayo Marukawa, of the legal challenge to change these laws which would allow women to change their surname after they get married. She rejected this and signed the petition due to what she refers to as a ‘personal opinion’ and not one which would affect her work when it comes to that of gender equality. The current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga brought hope to people fighting against this law when he revealed he was in favour of the implementation of the use of dual surnames in late 2020 but he still yet to take action in regards to his comment.
This law is one which continues to be controversial and one which has allowed the country to be viewed as an incredibly backwards country when it comes to that of gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights. Following extremely traditional and outdated views, the UN committee of the elimination of discrimination against women recommended that Japan reviews these laws by publicly stating it is one which discriminates against women. It is one which activists will continue to fight against and maybe one day, the women of Japan will be successful in gaining back their personal identity.