Reformers in Japan Push for Change to Outdated Surname Law

Reformers in Japan Push for Change to Outdated Surname Law

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

ライフスタイル カップル 婚姻届
In Japan, married couples must share the same surname. A growing chorus of voices says it's time for that to change.

Surnames are a big deal in Japan. The entire history of a family can be deduced simply by hearing their surname. Japan’s family registry, the koseki (戸籍), holds records of families going back generations. Every birth, death, adoption, marriage, and divorce is on file.

We’ve discussed the intricacies of family before in our write-up on adult adoptions and the various reasons people have for taking on family names through avenues other than marriage. In Japan, even if you want to keep your own surname after marriage, you and your spouse have to share the same surname.

If you think that’s a bit sexist and outdated…well, you’re correct. It’s been the law since the late 19th century, and it’s one that many men and women are trying to change under the name of 夫婦別姓 (ふうふべっせい; fuufubessei).

The 夫婦別姓 issue has picked up renewed attention once again thanks to the actions – or rather, lack of action – of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At a Japan Press Club conference on July 3, reporters asked the panel of politicians if they agreed with changing the policy and allowing couples the choice to keep their respective surnames. Of the seven members, all but Abe raised their hands in support of revision. This isn’t much of a surprise given his conservative views.

毎日新聞写真部 on Twitter: “参院選(4日公示、21日投開票)に向けた日本記者クラブ主催の党首討論会がありました。写真は、討論会で「選択的夫婦別姓を認めるか」という質問に対して唯一、自民党の安倍晋三総裁(中央)が挙手をしなかった場面です。写真特集で→https://t.co/LCXxo37bFz pic.twitter.com/Q7QOidBM93 / Twitter”

参院選(4日公示、21日投開票)に向けた日本記者クラブ主催の党首討論会がありました。写真は、討論会で「選択的夫婦別姓を認めるか」という質問に対して唯一、自民党の安倍晋三総裁(中央)が挙手をしなかった場面です。写真特集で→https://t.co/LCXxo37bFz pic.twitter.com/Q7QOidBM93

The official Twitter for Mainichi Photography tweeted this photograph of the show of support for revision to the same surname policy. I’d really like to know why Abe is smiling here…

What’s in a Name?

The law in question is Article 750 of the 1898 Civil Code, which states that a husband and wife must share a surname upon marriage. While there are no specifics on whose last name should be used, the majority tend to use the husband’s surname. Couples can only legally use their own surnames again one year after divorce. While many people, usually women, use their maiden name in informal situations, many want to retain their individual identities in marriage or a civil partnership.

It should be noted that Japanese citizens who marry a foreigner are exempt from this law, something opponents of Article 750 point out as unconstitutional.

The most active leader is Aono Yoshihisa (青野慶久), CEO of Tokyo-based software firm Cybozu, who operates under his original surname at work, but is legally known under his wife’s surname Nishihata. The quest for change didn’t begin with him, however — efforts to change the law picked up steam in 2015 when three women filed a joint lawsuit on the grounds that Article 750 enforced discrimination and outdated gender roles. The Supreme Court struck down the lawsuit, with the presiding judge stating that the practice of same surnames was deeply embedded in Japanese family identity. One of the plaintiffs of that case, Tsukamoto Kyoko, burst into tears upon hearing the court’s ruling.

Advertisements

「夫婦別姓」認めない規定は合憲、最高裁が初めて判断

夫婦別姓を認めない民法の規定が違憲かどうかが争われた訴訟の上告審判決で、最高裁大法廷(裁判長・寺田逸郎長官)は12月16日、夫婦別姓を認めない規定は「合憲」とする初の判断を示し、原告側の上告を棄却した。 毎日新聞 が報じた。 この訴訟は、東京都内の事実婚の夫婦ら5人が国に計600万円の慰謝料を求めて 起こした …

(JP) Link: Supreme Court Judge Refuses to Permit a System of Separate Surnames for Married Couples

The fight didn’t end there. In 2018, Aono Yoshihisa and three others filed another suit on the grounds of legal and psychological costs of changing one’s name. On March 29 of this year, a Tokyo court upheld the law, stating that no constitutional rights were being infringed upon. Aono and lawyer Sakka Tomoshi have expressed their plan to approach the Supreme Court with the matter.

While legal headway is slow, it’s encouraging to note how many people from all walks of life are starting to question this outdated policy. Couples have started sharing their own struggles navigating this law while maintaining their identities. Some have resorted to divorce in order to reclaim their surnames while still maintaining a relationship.

Given the complexity of Japan’s koseki system and deeply entrenched patriarchal views on family, revising Article 750 is just the tip of the iceberg. I for one hope the law is revised so people can keep their own surnames in marriage. No one should be forced to forsake their own name just to maintain a status quo. With the upcoming elections, it’ll be interesting to see if anybody publicly champions a plan to revise Article 750.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy