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EDITORIAL: Legal systems for marriage, family should match societal changes

  • June 30, 2022
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 12:31 p.m.
  • English Press

People’s values and lifestyles are becoming increasingly more diverse.


Some 510,000 couples tied the knot in Japan last year, only about half the figure 50 years ago. The number of people who never get married is trending upward in all generations.


Around 30 percent of 50-year-old men and women have no spouse.


It has long been taken for granted that people get married and have children and there are different roles for men and women. But many Japanese are no longer bound by such traditional notions concerning marriage and family.


As a result, many systems based on these traditional views have become at odds with the realities.


The government’s white paper on gender equality for fiscal 2022, published in June, says, “This is no longer the Showa Era (1926-1989),” and stresses the need to review related policies.


One viewpoint that may help voters weigh options as they watch debate for the July 10 Upper House election is which candidates and parties are well equipped to tackle the challenge of making social systems a better fit for the future of society.


One of the legal provisions that is the most divorced from reality is the civil code clause that requires married couples to use the same surname. This requirement has long been criticized for causing various disadvantages, inconveniences and a loss of identity.


The burden is imposed mostly on women as most Japanese married couples use the husband’s surname.


The Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council recommended a revision to the law to allow married couples to use separate surnames 26 years ago. But the proposal has been gathering dust on a shelf due to obstinate opposition from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which remains wedded to outdated views concerning families dating to the Meiji Era (1868-1912).


The campaign platforms of the LDP and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), a conservative opposition party, say this issue should be addressed by widening the scope of situations where married people who have changed their surnames are allowed to use their original family names.


But this approach–using two different family names in different situations–has its limitations and causes contradictions. It cannot be a true solution.


Komeito, the junior partner of the LDP in the ruling coalition, supports the proposal to introduce a system that allows married couples to use their own family names, but does not have the political power to make the LDP change its mind.


The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party, the Democratic Party for the People, Reiwa Shinsengumi and the Social Democratic Party jointly submitted to the Diet a bill to revise the civil code for the purpose late in this year’s ordinary session, which ended on June 15.


But the session was closed without even considering the bill.


According to a citizens group dedicated to promoting the cause, a total of 345 local governments have formally called for an early revision to allow married couples to use separate surnames. Clearly, national politics has been far too slow to respond to the growing social trend.


Another important issue is how to protect the rights of sexual minorities. Last year, the Sapporo District Court ruled that the civil code provision that bans same-sex marriages is unconstitutional. Recently, the Osaka District Court decided that the provision is not unconstitutional on the grounds that there has not been sufficient public debate on the issue.


But the Osaka District Court nevertheless pointed out that it is necessary to secure the benefits of approving same-sex marriages and argued that the lack of legislative action to deal with the issue could be unconstitutional depending on changes in social circumstances.


Neither the LDP nor the DPP has made any active response to these rulings. Komeito has just promised to promote in-depth debate on the issue. The CDP, Nippon Ishin and the JCP are calling for legislation to legalize same-sex marriages.


There are historical reasons and backgrounds for existing systems. But we should seek to build a society where members are respected as individuals as they are, not a society which requires members to adjust their values and lifestyles to existing systems.


Whether the upcoming election will lead to a step forward toward this goal depends on the choices of individual voters.

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