October 2022 | Japan Media Watch

The tangled political web of separate surnames for married couples

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

Since the 1990s, Japan's Ministry of Justice has carried out a survey every four to six years to gauge the public's reaction to the possibility of allowing married couples to use separate surnames. According to the Civil Code, when a couple marries in Japan they must chose one surname for both spouses and all the children they produce. They can choose either spouse's name, but about 96% choose the man's. However, many people would prefer keeping their surnames for various reasons and think the law should be changed to allow them to do so. Over the years, the portion of respondents who say that married couples should be given the option of keeping their individual birth names has risen steadily, but in the latest survey, which was conducted in January among 5,000 people aged 18 and older, this portion decreased for the first time, an outcome that caused concern among proponents of elective surnames, according to a March 7 feature in the Ronza section of the Asahi Shimbun, which suggested that forces in the government opposed to elective names had become increasingly worried that the law would be changed to allow for the option.

According to the article, attorney Nobuyuki Koike, an original member of a 1996 Ministry of Justice advisory panel formed to study the elective name issue, gave a press conference on January 25 at the Japan Press Club. He explained that most other countries do not require married couples to take the same surname, though they do have that option, so the idea of elective names in the rest of the world is the opposite of that in Japan. Opponents often say that elective names can't be allowed because of the family register (koseki), a core bureaucratic instrument that contains all the members of a given family under the surname of the "head of household." But Koike pointed out that the family register "is not a hurdle" for allowing elective names, and that there's no reason why it cannot contain two surnames for the two spouses. Korea, for instance, was forced to adopt the family register system after it was annexed by Japan, and retained it for decades after liberation, but, in accordance with the bong-wan tradition regulating clans, it mandated separate names for husbands and wives. (In 2008, South Korea replaced the family register with an individual register.) Moreover, Koike says there is no evidence that retaining separate names weakens family ties, another reason given for opposing elective names. Separate surnames do not automatically lead to more intra-family conflict or divorce. In the 1970s, many countries in the world started working constructively toward greater gender equality, and when the 1996 panel recommended the government allow for elective names one of the core reasons was that Japan follow this trend, since in almost all cases it is the woman who takes her husband's name. However, the government has never legalized elective names, instead urging "caution" and insisting that the public must support such changes before the law is changed.

During the Q&A session following the press conference, Koike was asked about the most recent survey by journalist Tetsuo Shiitani, who has written extensively about elective names from the standpoint of someone who is against them. He mentioned that the questionnaire offered three choices: allowing for elective names, maintaining the current system, and allowing for "aliases" (tsusho) in everyday transactions while maintaining the same name system. Shiitani believes that people who chose the third option, that of allowing the use of aliases, are actually opposed to elective names, and therefore if the portion that chose that option were combined with the portion that chose to maintain the current system, it means that the majority of Japanese people are against elective surnames. Though Koike tried to resist Shiitani's point, in the end he admitted that people who choose the alias option "may be opposed" to elective surnames.

The Asahi says that Shiitani used Koike's answer in letters he sent to local government assemblies in order to persuade them to support the use of aliases. Local assemblies are expected to advise the central government on matters of national interest, and over the years an increasing number have advocated for allowing elective names. Shiitani wants to reverse that trend, and since the survey results were released there has been a concerted effort by forces opposed to elective names to rally support behind the alias option, which would preserve the current same name system while allowing people who changed their name after marriage to use their birth name for professional and other purposes. Though this option has been available for years, opponents of elective names think that if it is codified there will be no more need to debate the issue of allowing elective names. 

However, an article by elective name advocate Naho Ida on the website President Online that appeared on February 8 pointed out that the alias option has serious limitations, the most obvious one being its use on passports. As it stands, those who want to use their birth name on a passport include it in parentheses after their legal married name, but international rules regarding passports don't often recognize aliases, and according to Iida there have been incidents where Japanese passports were not accepted overseas due to the additional name. 

But even in Japan, aliases are not as universally accepted as their advocates claim. Many women continue using their birth names professionally after they marry, but not all public and private employers allow it. Perhaps a law codifying aliases would force them to do so, but that may lead to even more problems. Iida explains that last year when the government started issuing Covid-19 vaccination certificates, the relevant authorities were unable to accept My Number identification cards issued by the government—necessary to apply for the certificates—with second names on them. Though this flaw has since been corrected by the Digital Agency, the certificates themselves may not be acceptable as proof of vaccination outside of Japan because of the parenthetical name. In addition, the chip contained in current passports does not accommodate second names. Ida says that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recognizes this problem but so far has not set about trying to solve it. Instead, they issue leaflets to holders of passports with aliases in parentheses informing them that they may have trouble purchasing airline tickets and will probably have to explain to overseas immigration authorities about their use of two names.

In addition, Ida says that aliases are an administrative burden. When Ida herself applied for her My Number card with two names, a public official tried to change her mind. Back in 2001 these potential problems were already known. A Cabinet report about gender equality said that unifying the alias system across public agencies for things like resident cards, passports, driver's licenses, and medical insurance would be too expensive and too time-consuming. Moreover, the use of aliases has sparked fears that it will make money laundering and fraud easier to carry out and more difficult to detect. Even the current same name system can be abused. Former Red Army fugitive Asako Shigenobu escaped the police by marrying in 1971 and getting a new passport with a new name, which allowed her to leave Japan undetected. Ida herself has two bank accounts with different names, one with her birth name that she opened before she married, and one with her married name. Changing the former was too much trouble, but the legality is a gray area since so many other women do the same thing. Similar problems occur when someone, almost always a woman, gets a divorce

Ida's point is that allowing elective names is not only a human right, but that forcing people to change their name when they marry can also lead to problems, and the alias system is not a solution. It is simply a means by which the authorities can keep the same name system while pretending to allow people to use whatever name they want. Even lawmaker Seiko Noda, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has said that aliases should only be codified with the understanding that it will lead to legalizing elective surnames in the future.

In August, the Asahi ran a series of articles investigating the results of the latest MOJ survey and found that they don't necessarily reveal what Shiitani and his fellow same-name advocates think they do. Asahi requested the MOJ to disclose all the survey data, since it seemed significant that the support rate for elective surnames decreased for the first time. The first article in the series, which appeared August 22, revealed that there has always been conflict within the government about allowing elective names, but that the sides in this conflict have shifted over the years. In 1996, in line with the panel's recommendation, the MOJ favored elective names, but now the ministry seems to be against it. When the Cabinet Office in charge of gender equality made suggestions about the survey, the MOJ replied that they needed to take into consideration those elements in the Diet that were opposed to elective names. Asahi Shimbun inferred that this meant that these elements preferred expanding the use of aliases, and this may have affected the way the survey was worded and presented.

In the August 30 installment of the series, Asahi interviewed Shuhei Ninomiya, an honorary professor of family law at Ritsumeikan University, about the survey. He said he was shocked by the results since the previous survey, conducted four years earlier, had shown growing support for elective names and now suddenly that support had dropped. The Asahi reporter mentioned that the support rate for legalizing the alias option was the highest ever, and Ninomiya reported that the use of aliases seemed to be growing, but then cited all the problems that Iida mentioned in her President article. 

Ninomiya believes that the reason for the increase in support for aliases and decrease in support for elective names comes down to changes in the way the questions were worded and their order of presentation. The alias option has been part of the survey for years, but Ninomiya thinks it has always been a distraction, a means of diluting support for elective names since respondents may think there is no real difference between elective names and the use of aliases, though there is. A more accurate survey would offer only two choices: maintain the present system or allow married couples to keep their birth names if they wanted to. 

Ninomiya drew attention to the question asking if the respondent thought that allowing elective names was bad for children. The question is worded in such a way as to make it appear that a child's healthy development is at risk if a couple opts for separate names. But he points out that there is no evidence of this. Many families with young children go through divorce and children are born into common law marriages where spouses have different names. He sees no proof that a child is worse off developmentally simply because their parents use separate names, so the question is clearly premised on a bias toward a specific family arrangement.

Even more insidious is the new order of the core questions. The option for maintaining the present system is first, followed by the question about the legalization of aliases, followed by the one for allowing elective surnames. This order, according to Ninomiya, is designed to prompt the respondent to react more positively to the alias option, which he then points out was never part of the MOJ's original draft bill for legalizing elective names. Over the years those political elements that object to elective names have steered the MOJ toward aliases as a better option. If the government wants to legalize aliases, they should just go ahead and propose a bill to do so, says Ninomiya, but elective surnames should be a separate matter. Aliases are not an acceptable alternative. 

The legalization of elective surnames is actually closer to being a reality now than it's ever been. Even former prime minister Yoshihide Suga has indicated he is willing to consider allowing the Civil Code to be changed to allow for elective names. It is also worth noting that one of the social forces that objects strongly to elective names is the Unification Church, which has been in the news continuously lately because of its circumstantial connection to the murder of former prime minister Shinzo Abe. The media has since reported that many politicians have received extensive help from the church to muster votes in their favor, and it's assumed that they have supported the church's views in kind. The church, which is vehemently anti-leftist, has warned repeatedly that elective surnames would promote communism. However, the whole point of elective names is giving people the right to choose what is perhaps their most personal possession. Though elective surnames is the norm in most countries in the world, the majority of married heterosexual couples opt to use one name, usually the man's, and there's no reason to think that if elective names were to be legalized in Japan the situation would change from what it is now. Only a minority of couples would likely retain separate names, so what is the government worried about? In the end, as Ida and Ninomiya have said, the issue of elective surnames isn't about family. It's about control. 


Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number 1 Shimbun.