Separate Spousal Surnames: Japan Business Group Says Law Must Change

Separate Spousal Surnames: Japan Business Group Says Law Must Change

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Separate spousal surnames
Picture: genzoh / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Japanese spouses can't legally have separate last names. The head of the Keidanren, Japan's most powerful business group, says that's impeding the success of women in Japanese business - and he's calling on the government to fix it.

In Japan, a Meiji-era law adopted from Europe means that Japanese couples have to use a single last name. Recently, there’s been growing support behind changing this. This week, the head of Japan’s largest business association threw his hat into the ring, saying that not allowing couples to use separate spousal surnames poses a “business risk.”

Chairman calls for “swift” action

Picture: Ryuji / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Tokura Masakazu made the group’s policy known at a press conference on June 10th. The Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, is the most powerful of Japan’s three major business groups for large corporations, with its head unofficially regarded as the country’s “prime minister of business.”

Currently, Japan requires Japanese nationals who marry to select either the husband’s or the wife’s surname as their joint legal last name. (The law does not apply to married foreign nationals living in Japan or Japanese people married to foreign nationals.) While couples can choose either spouse’s name in theory, in 95% of cases, they choose the husband’s name.

Several large companies enable employees – mainly women – to use their maiden names for business purposes. However, the Federation argued, this creates a mismatch, as they still can’t use their maiden names on important financial documents, such as bank accounts and credit cards.

The law, Tokura argued, also creates confusion when working internationally, as other major economic powers don’t have such a law on their books. People can also suspect women of fraud because their legal and business names don’t match up.

At the press conference, Tokura argued that the confusion created by the law hinders women from advancing their careers in business. That creates a “business risk” that makes fixing the law “an important topic,” he said.

“I’d like to see the government put forward a revision to the law swiftly so there can be a productive debate about this in the National Diet.”


It’s not the first time the Keidanren has commented on social issues. In 2023, Tokura called Japan’s lack of progress on same-sex marriage equality compared to the West “embarrassing.”

The history of the spousal surnames law

Couple sitting separately
Picture: teresa / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The separate spousal surnames law dates back to the 1898 Civil Code and is rooted in European law of the time. Since then, every European nation that had the law on its books has removed it. That leaves Japan an outlier in the economically developed world.

Recent polling in May 2024 by NHK shows 62% of the Japanese public supports separate spousal surnames. Only 27% of those polled opposed it. Other polls, such as one in 2020 from Asahi Shimbun, show support could be as high as almost 70%.

Despite this support, the government under Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Kishida Fumio continues to drag its feet on the change. While telling a Diet assembly in 2023 that he’s “never said I don’t support it,” he said the country needs “more debate” on the issue.

Others in the LDP have been more vocally opposed to changing the law. Notorious right-wing LDP lawmaker Sugita Mio shouted at another lawmaker in 2020 who proposed changing the law. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made clear during his tenure that he opposed changing the law as well.

Chief Cabinet Secretary: “We need to consider the people’s voice”

Sadly, it doesn’t feel like Tokura’s call will have any effect. Asked about the Keidranren’s position at a press conference, Chief Cabinet Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa delivered the LDP’s pat reply on the issue.

“There are many opinions among the people about introducing this system. I think we need to have a serious debate and gain a wider understanding from the people.”

The line echoes similar comments the LDP has made for years around why it refuses to introduce a bill legalizing marriage equality in Japan. As with separate spousal surnames, polls show that a majority – between 60 and 70% – of people in Japan support legalizing same-sex marriage.

Never say never, though. Both the Kishida government and the LDP are currently suffering in the polls and licking their wounds after a string of election defeats. Recent polling shows support for the party dipping to a low of 25.5%, down from a high of 41.2% in October 2021. If the LDP-backed Koike Yuriko fails to win a third term for governor of Tokyo, it’s possible that party brass could decide to drive through a few popular initiatives in an attempt to regain ground.

What to read next


夫婦同姓の強制「ビジネスでリスク」 経団連、早期の別姓導入求める. Asahi Shimbun

“選択的夫婦別姓の導入 国民の意見踏まえ検討” 林官房長官. NHK News Web

「選択的夫婦別姓」賛成が62% 反対は27%に NHK世論調査. NHK News Web

夫婦別姓で首相「反対と言ったことない」 けれど、結論の時期は… Asahi Shimbun

政党支持率 自民は25.5%で政権復帰以降最低に 無党派層は44%. NHK News Web

経団連・十倉会長 性的少数者への理解増進めぐる取組に苦言. TV Asahi

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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