November 2021

Japanese women - and men - demand the freedom to choose their surname after marriage

Photo by Al Soot on Unsplash

Seven years ago, Ikue Nagayama, a nephrologist, and her fiancé Akiya Sakatani, a cardiologist, decided to begin the process of registering their marriage with Sakai, Osaka Prefecture. Then aged 28 and 30, they had both been working as doctors at Nagayama Clinic, which was founded by Ikue’s father.

The couple will never forget the municipal official’s response when they handed in their marriage papers. “She looked at us in disbelief and said, ‘Excuse me, but you seem to have chosen different surnames to use after marriage. You can’t get married like this,’” Nagayama says.

“We were utterly shocked,” adds Nagayama, who campaigns with her common-law husband Sakatani for the right to retain separate surnames after marriage. 

About 800 marriages are registered every day in Japan, according to government statistics. Thanks to a rule that dates back more than a century, some couples, like Nagayama and Sakatani, are unable to marry unless one partner adopts the other’s surname.

Article 750 of Japanese Civil Law stipulates that every member of a household as defined in the family registry must have the same surname. Critics say the rule makes Japan a global anomaly.

Women take their husband’s names in 96% of cases – the result of a common expectation that she will join her husband’s family registry and ensure that his family name, and lineage, lives on.

The practice once had its uses. During the Meiji period, for example, it enabled military authorities to keep count of the exact number of males who could be conscripted from each household in wartime.

Naho Ida, the executive director of the National Petition Action for Selective Adoption of Surnames – also known as Chinjyo Action – is pushing for reform of the Civil Law, describing the current surname requirement as an abuse of human rights.

As a divorcee, Ida had to change her last name not once, but twice. Speaking at a recent press conference at the FCCJ, Ida and Makiko Terahara, an attorney who is also active in the surname reform movement, argued that the imposed name change disrespects a woman’s identity – something she acquires at birth.

Groups demanding surname reform were encouraged when the Supreme Court examined the constitutionality of the requirement in 2015. However, the justices rejected calls for change, ruling that the surname clause in the Civil Code was not unconstitutional.

Just five of the court’s 18 justices - three women and two men – opposed the decision. They wrote: “While some women may voluntarily choose to adopt their husband’s surname, factors including weaker socioeconomic status in comparison to men and vulnerable position in the household leave many with little choice.”  

Women refuse to change their surnames for various reasons. Some are professionals like Nagayama, who has worked for years at a clinic bearing her name. Others include academics who publish papers under their maiden names, engineers who hold registered patents, or lawyers like Terahara, who represents women who have taken their husbands’ surnames against their will.

For some couples, the only way out of their predicament is to enter into a common-law marriage.

When the local authorities turned down their marriage application, Nagayama and Akiya spent months discussing their options, before deciding to enter into a common-law marriage – a move that would enable them to retain the clinic’s name.

But not being legally married has its drawbacks. There is no inheritance unless a will is drawn up before death; no joint custody of children; no spousal tax benefits; and no joint bank account or loans. 

Reform supporters say doing the “unthinkable” and asking the husband to change his surname to the wife’s is similarly unfair.

Megumi Ueda, 44, a program manager at a public organization that offers overseas technical assistance and her IT engineer common-law husband, Hitoshi Harada, 49, use different surnames. “Why would I ask my husband to do something which I myself did not want to do in the first place?” says Ueda.

International pressure on Japan for reform, including from the United Nations, has failed to bring about change. But as the country sinks lower in international gender equality surveys, more people in Japan are convinced that the antiquated surname law has no place in the 21st century. 

There is also a discussion taking place around what constitutes “normal” or “common” when it comes to surnames. More husbands in Japan now appreciate the importance their wives attach to their maiden name and agree that forcing her to change her name amounts to a denial of her identity.

Akiko Watanabe (not her real name), 31, is a public servant and her 35-year-old husband, Kazuya Ishizawa, works for a manufacturing company. They are legally married.  

“I used to have the traditionally conservative Japanese opinion about this name issue,” confesses Ishizawa, “until I realized how painful it was for my wife to have to change her name.”

In an unusual move, the couple will soon divorce and remarry, but this time Ishizawa will take his wife’s surname. Asked about how he thinks his colleagues will react, he says: “My seniors at the company will almost certainly moan.”

He may be worrying unnecessarily, however. In a poll published by the Asahi Shimbun in January 2020, more than 67% of respondents voiced support for allowing both women and men to retain their surnames after marriage. It is worth noting that support rose among older women, reaching 85% among those in their 50s.

Despite shifting public opinion, conservative politicians such as Sanae Takaichi, who recently ran for the Liberal Democratic Party leadership, refuse to support women’s right to choose their surname. Instead, Takaichi argues that allowing couples to use separate surnames would destroy family unity.

Ueda, however, believes some politicians are using tradition to stifle change.  

“Having the same surname is not [a guarantee of] family ties. One-third of marriages end up in divorce in Japan, despite those couples having the same surname,” she says.

Last month, one of Ueda’s female colleagues was proposed to by her boyfriend. “She told me that my decision to keep my own name had played a part in her decision to say yes,” Ueda says.

After seven years of common-law marriage and two children aged 5 and 10 months, Nagayama and Sakatani’s wait for a change in the law continues.

Ilgın Yorulmaz is a reporter for BBC World Turkish. She is the Second Vice President of FCCJ and also serves as the co-chair of its Diversity Committee.