NATSUKO NAKAMURA, Nikkei senior staff writer
TOKYO — The Japanese Supreme Court again upheld a law requiring married couples to have the same surname, dealing a blow to the many women hoping for a breakthrough.
The ruling follows a similar decision delivered in 2015. Though the concept of family and marriage changes with the times, the thinking at Japan’s top court remains unchanged from six years ago. We are being asked to live in a new era under a system devised 120 years ago.
Japan is an outlier on this issue: No other countries legally force couples to take the same surname after marriage.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel kept her previous name after marrying Joachim Sauer. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris opted not to take the name of her husband, Doug Emhoff. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her partner, Clarke Gayford, gave both of their surnames to their daughter.
The United Nations has repeatedly urged Japan to change its policy, noting that it is almost always women who assume their husbands’ names under social pressure.
A person’s birth name is part of his or her identity. And in a country where the average age at first marriage is around 30, people tying the knot already have established careers, credit histories, personal relationships and assets all linked to their original name, making a change that much more burdensome.
To address this issue, the Japanese government, rather than lift the ban on separate surnames, looks to have women use maiden names alongside their legally registered married names. But this comes with its own complications.
If a parent goes by their original name at work, it could be more difficult for a day care using the person’s legal name to get in touch in an emergency, for example. And a researcher who participates in overseas conferences under a name that does not match their passport will find it much more time-consuming to prove their identity.
Japan allows for maiden names to be included in parentheses on passports, but this may not be enough to prove the connection, particularly as countries impose tougher standards for identity verification. Few countries use such a system, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, and travelers have run into issues explaining it to immigration authorities.
This approach puts a heavier burden on businesses as well. Only about 46% of companies surveyed by Japan’s Cabinet Office in 2017 allowed workers to use former last names.
Business leaders launched a group this spring to lobby for separate surnames to be legalized, arguing that the current policy pushes the burden of dealing with name changes onto offices and hurts productivity.
And while the law is intended to protect families, it appears to be having the opposite effect for many.
As birthrates fall, the same-surname requirement combined with a rise in single-child families is leading to family name lines dying out. Couples who both have no siblings and want to carry on their family names in honor of their forebears cannot marry — something that is becoming a serious issue in less-populated areas.
Many couples forgo formal marriage formally in favor of common-law marriages, but legal support for such arrangements is lacking. While well over half of children in France — where birthrates are relatively high — are born to unmarried parents, the percentage is strikingly low in Japan.
It has been a quarter century since the Justice Ministry’s advisory Legislative Council first recommended allowing couples to keep different surnames. Children born then are now adults facing an issue that their parents’ generation put off dealing with.
When the government sought input last year for an updated strategy on gender equality, the “#What Does Gender Equality Mean To You” project, organized by young people under age 30, collected more than 1,000 opinions, with the most common view being an end to the separate-surname ban. A petition on the issue garnered over 30,000 signatures in five days.
In its opinion on the 2015 case, the Supreme Court stated that its ruling in favor of the same-surname provision does not mean that a different system is “unreasonable,” while adding that it should be “discussed and determined by the Diet.”
But when the government released its gender equality strategy late last year, language in favor of considering separate last names was dropped via a cabinet decision in response to strong resistance from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
As young people demand to know when women will be able to make this choice for themselves, it remains far from clear when, or from where, an answer will come.