By Sachiko Ishikawa | Translated by Hatsune Sawada
Illustration by Emily Howard
A husband and wife shall adopt the surname of the husband or wife in accordance with that which is decided at the time of marriage
– Article 750 of the Japanese Civil code
Marriage in Japan forces both parties to share the same surname – and it is currently the only country in the world to enforce such rules – which were only instated in 1896. Today, in 2020, there seems to be no new developments in the National Diet regarding a legal reform despite several lawsuits and nation-wide petitions.
“I got married at a young age,” explains Mrs. Naho Ida, Secretary-General of Sentakuteki Fufu Bessei, Zenkoku Chinjyo Action (The Selective Separate Spousal Surname National Petition Action). “I did not want to change my last name, but my families and everyone around said I need to change my name because I am female. After I got divorced, I decided to keep that last name, because I had advanced my career with that name for over a decade. Years later, I met someone new. Neither my children nor I wanted to change our names, and I did not want my new husband to take my ex-husband’s last name either. Therefore, we decided to opt for a de facto marriage. However, when he had to undergo a serious surgery, the hospital did not allow me to sign his papers unless we were under legal marriage. Thus, I had no choice but to get legally married and change my name again. There were so many paperworks to go through, and my legal identity changed once again. I feel devastated.”
This is the story shared to Voice Up Japan, and the spark that would turn into a whole national movement to guarantee the rights of men and women who do not wish to change their surnames upon marrying.
After this exhausting back and forth just to keep her name, Mrs. Ida reached out to Twitter where “There were so many people who were also conflicted about changing their names due to marriage.” After meeting several people and activists, they decided to reach out to Fumiaki Matsumoto in Nakano Ward (Tokyo), an LDP member of the National Diet.
“If you want to change the law,” he said, “you will have to make a petition and gather opinions in writing to send to the National Diet through your local assemblies. If you can show that these many people want a legal reform, MPs will realize that this is something they need to take into consideration.” With his help, they finally gathered the information and the momentum they needed in order to successfully create “Sentakuteki Fufu Bessei, Zenkoku Chinjyo Action” and send their first official petition to the National Diet in December of 2018. Besides Chinjyo Action, which counts now around 200 members, several organizations have risen in order to combat Article 15 and seek change.
69% are in favor of allowing separate surnames
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled Article 750 of the Japanese Civil code constitutional, despite several appeals and lawsuits to this day and the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
A survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun by phone to 2,166 people in January this year shows that 69% were in favor of allowing separate surnames, as opposed to 24% of people against it (and a 7% without comment). Also of note, in all age groups, over 70% of women were in favor.
Additionally, a 2017 survey in Japan of 606,866 marriages revealed that only 4.1% of men take their wives’ name—which means the brunt of the paperwork falls on women’s shoulders. These documents include, but are not limited to:
- Koseki Tohon (Family Registry)
- Juminhyo (Certificate of Residence)
- IDs (passports, My Number cards, Driver’s license, etc)
- Bank accounts (renewal of all cards and updates to all automated systems)
- Mobile phones
- Pension Services
- Public and private insurances (health, life, etc)
- Workplace documentation
- Acquiring a new hanko (personal seal) to handle most of the paperwork above
In order to get most of these documents updated, physical presence in the respective offices is a must, and these are usually only accessible on weekdays during working hours. This means it is not compatible with a Monday to Friday 9h to 6h office job, therefore forcing these women to take paid vacation. Sometimes these changes are immediate but some, like issuing new cards, might take weeks to be processed. For example, if you need a new National Health Insurance Card, any doctor’s appointments will have to be paid in full (instead of 30%) to be reimbursed later (which requires more paperwork later on).
Other than the time-consuming process and the hurdles of the system in order to change one’s name, there are many legitimate reasons for which one might not want to change their family name. The very valid “I don’t want to” justification aside, for some women, changing their name might mean a hit to their professional and academic careers, from patent management to business travel abroad where one’s legal name might not match their currently used names at work.
This happens because some companies do offer the possibility of 通称使用, which means that even though one’s name has been changed legally, they might still be allowed to continue using their previous surname. This facilitates communication between coworkers and one’s clients (who might not get used to different surnames), but unfortunately, it is not legally protected and some companies might refuse to accommodate two surnames (one for practical and one for legal purposes).
There have been numerous attempts at revising the law. The most recent lawsuit that gained a lot of traction was led by four people, including Yoshihisa Aono, the president of software company Cybozu Inc. in the Tokyo High Court in 2018. Their main argument for the unconstitutionality of the law was that, while international marriages do not have to comply with the one-marriage one-surname rule, Japanese nationals do not have a choice, which defies Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution (“すべて国民は、法の下に平等であつて、[…] 差別されない” or “all of the people are equal under the law”). Sadly, they lost the case in 2019, although Mr. Aono did reveal his plans to appeal the Court’s decision.
Unlike legal marriages, common-law marriages, or 事実婚, allows couples to officially register that they live together and in a relationship – and although this grants the freedom of keeping one’s names and not entering someone else’s family registry, it still remains in a gray area where, in many cases, it is not considered official or even legal. Therefore, many of the advantages of legal marriages simply do not apply to common-law marriages. This ranges from not being allowed inheritance tax exemptions, income tax spousal deductions, not qualifying for joint bank accounts or home loans, to even not being able to get a spousal VISA abroad.
Couples in common-law marriages also face difficulties when it comes to having children, as parental rights and custody will automatically go to the mother unless the father is registered in the child’s birth certificate. Additionally, in many cases they also do not qualify in order to adopt children, nor do they get the same subsidies for infertility treatments as partners in legal marriages do.
I, myself, have struggled with this issue. Because I am a Japanese national, when I married, my husband and I decided that I would be the one taking his surname. I do not particularly regret that decision, but I am bitter that I was not given an option in the first place. I have published books with my “old” surname before, which has now had to become a “pen name.” This split in identities does have its perks, especially online and when you’re protesting the establishment, but on a personal note, it’s heartbreaking to feel your old self become a separate entity.
To learn more on “Sentakuteki Fufu Bessei, Zenkoku Chinjyo Action”: