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Editorial: Issue of separate surnames tests Japan’s tolerance of diversity

  • October 29, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:50 p.m.
  • English Press

One key issue for the Oct. 31 Lower House election is shaping up as a test of whether Japan can move toward building a tolerant society that respects the lifestyles and values of individual members.


Or will Japan remain wedded to an anachronistic rule dating to the Meiji Era (1868-1912) while turning a blind eye to the hardships many Japanese are facing because of the requirement?


The campaign platforms of the parties look similar to each other in many areas due to a limited availability of realistic policy options. But there is a clear battle line between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and most of the rest over the proposal to allow married couples to use separate surnames.


Many opposition parties and Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition, have pledged in their platforms to revise the law to give married couples that choice. But the LDP only promises to take steps to prevent disadvantages related to the change of a surname due to marriage.


Nippon Ishin, a conservative opposition party, says it will introduce a system to allow married people who have changed their surnames to continue using their birth names for social activities without changing the principle that married couples should use the same family name.


The civil code requires married couples to use the same surname and 96 percent of Japanese married couples use the husband’s surname. This requirement has long been criticized for causing various disadvantages, inconveniences and a loss of identity. The Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council recommended a revision to the law 25 years ago.


The council called for allowing married couples to use separate surnames if they wished to. But the LDP’s opposition has left the proposal in political limbo.


The government’s fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality, announced late last year, even represented a step backward on the issue. The plan dropped the phrase “sentakuteki fufu bessei” (selective separate surnames of husbands and wives), which means allowing married couples a choice of surnames, from the text in response to the LDP’s demand.


This phrase had been in all the previous basic plans since the first one was compiled in 2000.


The move ran counter to a growing and obviously irreversible trend of the times. In a 2017 survey by the government, about half of the respondents younger than 60 supported the proposed revision to the law.


Some maintain that it suffices to expand areas where married people who have changed their surnames can use their birth names for social or business purposes. There has been progress in this respect.


But such people are required to use their legally registered surnames on important occasions related to their legal rights and obligations. In addition, the burden of using two different surnames depending on the occasion has grown as financial institutions and other businesses have become more rigorous in confirming the identities of their customers.


If couples opt for de facto marriage without registration to maintain their respective surnames, they will face such disadvantages as ineligibility to various tax benefits.


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent remarks at the Diet have raised doubt about his understanding of these realities. The idea “should continue to be debated vigorously,” he said.


But all the points for argument have already been discussed. It is none other than the LDP that has blocked vigorous debate on this proposal.


Opponents often contend that the proposed change would “cause a loss of a sense of unity among family members.” But this argument is by no means convincing given that there are many couples who are effectively, but not legally, married but have happy families.


In July, the Supreme Court ruled that the civil code provision requiring married couples to use the same family name is constitutional. But the top court did not deny the constitutionality of revising the law to introduce a new name system.


It said the Diet, composed of the representatives of the people, should decide what kind of system should be adopted.


Some parties’ campaign platforms promise to guarantee the rights of same-sex couples. It is up to the voters to decide whether Japan should move toward a future where diversity in lifestyles will be embraced and the dignity of individuals will be respected.


–The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 29

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