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Debate over surnames hinders reform agenda of Japanese PM

  • December 26, 2020
  • , Nikkei Asia , 11:00 a.m.
  • English Press

YUKIO TAJIMA, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — For the past 120 years, Japan’s Civil Code has stipulated that “a husband and wife shall adopt the surname of the husband or wife in accordance with that which is decided at the time of marriage.” But as more women play a greater role in society, there are growing calls for married couples to adopt separate surnames.


The government was about to revise the code but was thwarted by conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. In early December, LDP lawmakers gathered to discuss a dual-surname system included in a gender equality proposal, which the Cabinet had hoped to endorse by the end of the month. But discussions soon collapsed as conservatives raged: “If married couples have separate surnames, that could weaken family ties” and “Children could get confused if parents have separate surnames.”


Notably, the draft merely stipulated that “the government will take necessary measures based on discussions in the Diet.”


Entrenched conservatives reacted strongly to the wording, however, saying that it would mislead the public, or cited the party’s election promises, which included opposition to the idea.

For conservative LDP lawmakers, allowing different surnames is not an option. They say that it “could lead to the collapse of a family-based society,” stressing that they are protecting children. “[Different surnames] will not be good for children’s welfare, as two families could be at odds over which surname children should use.” They also claim that “different surnames, could lead to tenuous relations.”


While reformists say that many countries allow the practice, conservatives respond that Japan should stick to its own way. In the face of backlash from conservatives, the government revised the draft. Instead of saying “the government will take necessary measures” it now reads, “the government will give further consideration.” The reference to “married couples with separate surnames” was replaced by the ambiguous “an ideal concept of a specific system regarding the surname of married couples.”


The significantly revised draft was adopted by the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito last week. It was approved in a Cabinet meeting on Friday.


Japan has not traditionally forced married couples to adopt the same surname. According to the Ministry of Justice, commoners — including townsmen and farmers — were not allowed to have surnames until the Edo period (1603-1868). It wasn’t until 1870 that the Meiji government allowed commoners to have the privilege, as part of the nation’s effort to modernize and make it easier to collect taxes and draft people into the military.


Initially, wives were allowed to keep their maiden names. Slowly, the government started forcing married couples to use the same surnames after the Old Civil Code took effect in 1898. It was a change associated with the introduction of “Ie,” or “house” in Japanese — the traditional Japanese system aimed at maintaining a sense of family unity.


The current Civil Code was enacted in 1947, maintaining that married couples should bear the same surname, but with a slight twist. The government insisted that wives should adopt their husband’s name, however the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces — which oversaw the occupation — decided that either a husband or a wife should be able to choose a surname. It reasoned that forcing wives to use their husband’s name would be “contrary to the idea of gender equality.”


Japanese women have not always been against taking their husband’s name. Until the postwar period of rapid economic growth, most Japanese women were full-time homemakers, and many found it convenient, as long as they lived within the family unit.


But as they started to play a larger role in society, some women have found it awkward to take their husband’s name. In the workplace, it may take time before their new surnames become widely known. It is also a major chore to change names on bank accounts, credit cards and other legal documents.


Even for those who maintain their maiden name just for convenience, say only in the office, using different surnames can cause problems, such as in hospitals and at work. Many working women who want to keep their maiden name in the office have to use their husband’s for human resource documents and pay slips.


Still, things are changing. An online survey targeting people under 60 years old conducted in October by Waseda University professor Masayuki Tanamura and a civic group found that more than 70% of 7,000 respondents were aware of the issue.


While 34.7% said they were in favor of optional surnames and did not mind if married couples had different ones, 36% said they preferred the same family name, but did not mind if other couples had different ones. Only 14% replied that all couples should have the same surname.


“Having the option will lead to respect for diversity and a vibrant society,” Tanamura said. “Japan should introduce the option, which will ultimately keep society strong.”


Prompted by increasing social awareness of the option, the government has continued discussing the issue. In 1996, the Legislative Council, an advisory panel to the justice minister, proposed a revision of the Civil Code to introduce the dual surname option.


But the government failed to submit a bill due to strong opposition from LDP and other lawmakers, claiming that it was premature for Japan. The fifth basic plan to promote gender equality was expected to mark the first step toward introducing dual surnames.


Given the hopes voiced by women in favor of being able to choose their own name after marriage, the plan could have been a boon to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is a strong advocate of reform.


Why, then, did the prime minister approve watering down the bill, as he is seen as supporting the option? Asked about his past call for creating the dual surname system during a lower-house budget committee session in November, he admitted he had supported it. Some observers point out that the setback in the plan reflects Suga’s difficult position.


Suga, who is not affiliated with any faction, does not have an influential power base in the LDP and thus was not seen as a strong candidate in the September LDP presidential election. But he became prime minister because major factions decided to back him as a result of shifting party dynamics just before the poll. In other words, his power base is far from solid.


The LDP presidency will expire in September 2021. To ensure reelection, Suga must retain the backing of longtime conservative — and powerful — LDP lawmakers. He can expect support from each faction as long as his approval rating is high. But his ratings could likely fall, possibly due to his support for the now-suspended “Go To Travel” domestic travel campaign, which continued for some time despite the pandemic.


Suga’s popularity recently suffered after he attended year-end dinner gatherings, despite asking the public to refrain from dining in large groups to prevent the spread of the virus. Suga also accepted the setback in the gender equality plan, possibly because of the rivalry with his predecessor Shinzo Abe. Although Abe resigned for health reasons in August and is now mired in his own political scandal, he still wields influence in the LDP after leading the government for nearly eight years.


Abe had a strong conservative power base. Suga might have become more cautious on the dual surname issue, possibly out of fear that his position would prompt his tepid support to shift to Abe.


The setback for optional dual surnames has disappointed some, particularly women who have long called for it. The government has revised its gender equality basic plan every five years. While there are other approaches to the issue, the next opportunity to review the plan will come in 2025. There seems still a long way to go before working women will be free from surname-related hassles.


Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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