Efforts to inch toward a system that would allow married couples to use separate surnames suffered a huge setback after die-hard opponents in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party staged a last-ditch offensive.
The government’s draft Basic Vision for Formulating the Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality states that it will “proceed with necessary steps” concerning “a system in which couples can use surnames from before marriage.”
But at a Dec. 15 meeting of LDP members, the discussion revolved around a draft proposal presented by conservative opponents, who insisted that “proceed with necessary steps” be replaced with the government will “continue to consider.”
The fifth basic plan is expected to gain Cabinet approval this month based on the LDP proposal.
This revised version is effectively the same as the current fourth basic plan approved in 2015.
In addition, “the introduction of a system allowing married couples to use separate surnames,” which was in the fourth basic plan, was replaced by “a specific system concerning married couples’ surnames.”
But the rollback did not end there.
Opponents even succeeded in adding “in view of the country’s history that the use of the same surnames for married couples is integrated with the family register system” in the LDP proposal.
A comment that criticized the existing system was also taken out of the government’s draft.
The government draft states that some people regard the system requiring married couples to use the same surname as contributing to the country’s dwindling birthrate due to a hesitation that getting married will result in the family name ceasing to exist if they cannot keep it after marriage.
The comment was sent to the government when it solicited opinions on the issue from the public as it began compiling a draft proposal for the fifth basic plan.
In Japan, article 750 of the Civil Law stipulates that a husband and wife must have the same surname. It does not mean that wives should adopt their husband’s family name.
But more than 90 percent of wives do, which has long been viewed as an impediment to advancing issues related to gender equality.
Furthermore, a statement in the government’s draft that read “no other country was found in the global community, except for Japan, that the use of the identical surname was set under law” was also deleted.
Under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down in September after seven years and eight months in office, few in the LDP dared to start a discussion on a dual surname system.
Abe was known to be reluctant to change the status quo because many in his power base subscribe to the traditional concept of a family under an identical surname.
But after Yoshihide Suga took over, the mood in the LDP began to change.
Suga signaled during Diet debate on Nov. 6 that he would not block moves to revamp the system.
Seiko Hashimoto, the minister for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics who doubles as minister in charge of women’s empowerment and gender equality under Suga, remained positive that progress, albeit at a crawl, is being made.
While the government draft for the fifth basic plan may not go far enough, it still amounted to an advance from the past when it suggested that it will “proceed with necessary steps” toward the new setup.
But conservative members of the LDP did not sit by quietly to let the wording be approved by the party.
Former Cabinet members Seiichi Eto and Eriko Yamatani, close allies of Abe who oppose a new surname system, waged a campaign to roll back the government draft.
Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs minister, joined them, arguing that the dual-surname system would have negative implications for the offspring of married couples.
Opponents were mobilized to block any advance on the issue and accounted for more than half of attendees at some of the LDP meetings that debated the issue.
But the tide of public opinion is firmly on the side of advocates for a departure from the existing setup.
For example, an opinion poll by The Asahi Shimbun in January found that 69 percent of voters backed the system allowing married couples to have separate surnames.
In the end, Suga toned down his position in the face of “organized resistance” from LDP traditionalists.
“It is a challenging issue,” he said during an internet news show on Dec. 11. “The government will respond after hearing opinions from the public as the LDP is sharply divided over it.”