Japanese Women Fight for Right to Keep Maiden Name

There is a 133-year-old law on the books in Japan that requires any couple legally married in Japan to pick only one surname. The problem is that the culture makes it almost unequivocally the male’s surname.

According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, a group of Japanese have filed a lawsuit challenging the law on constitutional grounds.

Japanese culture is very different than American culture in several ways. And while in many areas of the United States women are underrepresented and faced with stereotypes, in Japan women have even less of a presence. In corporate, academic and political circles, Japanese women are underrepresented – instead, women are still expected to do most of the homemaking and raise the children.

The lawsuit is being brought by five plaintiffs, four women and one of the women’s partners, seeking $70,000 in damages from the government. The injury they are claiming is distress. They also seek to force the local government offices to accept marriage certificates with different surnames for each party.

Not surprisingly, this lawsuit also has a political angle.

The Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, and his party promised legislation which would allow separate surnames. However, any attempt to pass this kind of legislation has stalled in the face of the conservatives.

According to the article, Japan is the only one of the Group of Eight industrialized nations that require married couples to have the same family name. What might be even more surprising is that both China and South Korea allow married women to have different surnames from their husband.

China is not a county typically known for being on the cutting edge of progressive social issues, but is ahead of Japan on this issue- at least for now.

The law is neutral on its face and allows the married couple to choose which surname they would like to use. But the only time that it is somewhat acceptable for the woman’s name to be used is if she is an only child and her family has put pressure on her to carry on the family name.

If there is a financial incentive, then it is also somewhat common for the family to choose the wife’s name.

There is growing international pressure for Japan to drop the one-surname requirement. In 2009, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women weighed in and have pressured the Japanese government to change the law.

It seems that the Japanese law is going to change, but when and how is still unknown. But with pressure on the ruling party and prime minister, constitutional challenges and international pressure it seems pretty safe to assume that sometime in the not too distant future, this law will be gone.

Despite this somewhat archaic marriage requirement, Japan does have relatively progressive divorce laws. The country offers for grounds for divorce, including “divorce by mutual agreement”.

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