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Opinion: Fixation with “tradition” hinders surname rule reform

  • 2015-12-17 15:00:00
  • , Nikkei
  • Translation

(Nikkei: December 17, 2015 – p. 3)


 By Mitsuo Oshima, senior writer


 How much more time will it take after the “two lost decades”? The ruling by the Grand Bench of the Supreme Court that the Civil Code requiring married couples to adopt the same surname is constitutional is a reminder of the difficulty of introducing reforms. The stumbling block is the deep-rooted notion of “tradition” in society.


 The Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice, an advisory body to the justice minister, recommended a system that will allow couples to opt for different surnames in 1996. However, this met with fierce opposition from politicians, preventing legal amendments. During this period, many countries in the world got rid of similar rules on surnames.


 That the practice of couples using the same surname is an ancient Japanese tradition and that the sense of togetherness of a family is maintained through a single surname – these are the notions that stand in the way of reform. However, a look at the origin and essence of this custom casts doubts on how deeply rooted this tradition can be.


 Until the Edo Period, farmers and townspeople did not have surnames. When the Meiji government started to establish the family register system, married couples were originally instructed to use separate surnames. The principle of same surname was only established along with the ie system in 1898, when the Meiji civil code was enacted.


 About 50 years later, when the current postwar Civil Code was formulated, the ie system was abolished and new rules on surnames were put in place. While the question of husband and wife adopting different surnames was not discussed at that time, this issue has been on the agenda of the Legislative Council since the first half of the 1950s. It can be said that the “tradition” of husband and wife using the same surname is simply the result of a mistaken preconception.


 The majority opinion in the latest Supreme Court ruling emphasized the significance of using the same surname for the “family” in light of its being accepted as the social norm since the Meiji Period. It pointed out that “there are reasonable grounds for using one single surname.” There was absolutely no suggestion of fixation with “tradition” or a return to the old ie system.


 On the other hand, the five justices, including three women, who maintained that the rule on surnames is “unconstitutional” pointed to social changes and women’s social participation. There is a very wide gap between them and the justices who ruled that the Civil Code provision on using the same surname is “constitutional.” This illustrates the difficulty of reaching a national consensus on this issue.


 During the period of rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, a division of labor by gender – the husband dedicating himself solely to work outside the home and the wife staying home to take care of housekeeping – became an established practice. This postwar version of the ie system might have been a factor in reestablishing the principle of one family surname.


 Yet this is also just a model from the past. What does the world think of a Japan clamoring for women’s empowerment but refusing to change the foundation of the social system? Japan will undoubtedly stand out as strange.

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