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Friday, April 16, 2021

Explained: The debate over a Japan law requiring married couples to have the same surname

Under Japan’s civil code, married couples are required to share the same surname, thus making the country the only industrialised nation where having different surnames for married spouses is illegal.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 1, 2021 10:36:34 am
The country’s minister for women’s empowerment and gender equality, Tamayo Marukawa, is among the conservative politicians who are resisting allowing women to keep their birth name after marriage. (Reuters)

A section of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has signalled its opposition to changing a law that forces married couples to have the same surname, The Japan Times has reported. The country’s minister for women’s empowerment and gender equality, Tamayo Marukawa, is among the conservative politicians who are resisting allowing women to keep their birth name after marriage.

In the recent past, Japan has witnessed heated debates over the century-old law, with women’s rights activists pitted against conservative figures.

What is Japan’s surname law?

Under Japan’s civil code, married couples are required to share the same surname, thus making the country the only industrialised nation where having different surnames for married spouses is illegal. The requirement was first introduced in 1896 during the Meiji era (1868-1912), when it was common for women in the country to leave their families and become a part of the husband’s family.

While the law makes having one surname compulsory, it does not specify which name a couple should adopt. However, in an overwhelming number of cases, couples choose to adopt the husband’s surname at birth. Currently, 96 per cent of women drop their maiden name in Japan, reflecting the country’s male-dominated society.

The law even forbids in-between options, such as hyphenating last names, keeping one’s family name as a middle name, or combining the two surnames into a new one, as per The Japan Times. As a way of going around the system, many Japanese women use their birth names at work and their married surname on official documents.

Those who want to keep separate surnames sometimes opt to not register their marriage, but then risk legal problems such as disputes over inheritance and parental rights, according to Reuters.

Japan often faces criticism for its poor performance when it comes to gender equality. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, Japan was ranked 121st out of 153 countries (India was at 112).

Efforts to change the law

Proponents of individual and women’s rights have long demanded that Japan do away with the archaic law. Women have also slammed the law for putting them through the hassle of getting their surnames changed on official documents such as passports after marriage. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has echoed these demands.

Conservatives have been resisting these efforts, and have argued that giving couples the choice to choose their surname could damage family ties and threaten Japanese society. In 2015, Japan’s supreme court sided with conservatives, ruling that the civil code’s surname-sharing obligation was not unconstitutional.

Now, around 50 Japanese parliamentarians from the ruling LDP, including gender equality minister Tamayo Marukawa, have been urging local party assembly members to shun the move to revise the law.

According to The Japan Times report, in a letter written on January 30, the parliamentarians have asked leaders to reject in the local assemblies a written opinion favouring the policy change. In Japan, opinions adopted in local assemblies are seen as the first step towards initiating a debate over the subject in parliament.

Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga brought hope to those demanding change when he announced support for a system that would allow dual surnames. However, after backlash from conservative members of his party, the Suga government did not announce any change when its gender equality promotion policy was approved in December.

According to the Guardian, in a survey conducted in October 2020, 70.6% of respondents did not object to couples using different surnames, while 14.4% said that the current law should continue.

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