Guest piece: The Supreme Court of Japan passed a shocking ruling on June 23rd – one that will affect married couple equality in Japan for years if not decades to come.
In 2018, three pairs of newlyweds questioned domestic law that states when couples are married, they have to use the same surname, in the process filing a petition for a constitutional interpretation.
Many people in Japan, primarily women, claim they have to endure more than 100 administrative processes in the process of registering a ‘married name’, and in conservative Japanese working environments changing their surnames will also affect their reputation at work, thereby potentially influencing their jobs and future careers.
Of course, men can also change their last names to their wives’ family names as the law only states that married couples have to use the same surname. It does not differentiate between the sexes.
But according to statistics, the change was made by a least 96% of women rather than the other way round.
In the end, Japan’s top court made a decision that in effect said this law does not violate the constitution.
Following the ruling, the married couples in question, along with people promoting gender equality in Japan expressed their disappointment.
One of the married couples said to Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, “For some people, marriage represents having the same surname. Nevertheless, I want society to recognize different values as well.”
This is the second time that Tokyo has come to the same conclusion since 2015, with the judgement handed down by 15 chief justices, only four of whom opposed the law.
In brief, the Supreme Court stated that it is reasonable to use only one family name.
Although there may be many inconveniences for women, there have been some relaxations under the usual naming convention.
There are also other regulations about names in Japan where children cannot be named using certain Chinese characters depicting hate, evil, the devil, etc., even though people would seldom name their children in such a manner – although this too is still a restriction on people who have different values as to how they name their children.
Additionally, and interestingly, the law on surnames after wedlock does not apply to marriage to non-Japanese, so when marrying foreigners, people can choose to keep their original surnames.
The UN has long hoped the Japanese government would modify the law that deprives people of the right to keep their own names, and as such Japan was thought to be considering an amendment to the law as far back as 1996.
Referring to this, a former member of the Ministry of Justice said in an interview that they were really “optimistic” about letting married couples have different surnames.
Nonetheless, the conservative parties in power – namely the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and Komeito (a conservative party with links to Buddhism) claimed that such a law, if passed would “weaken the relationships in a family”, so by asking people who change surnames to maintain previous surnames at work, this would ‘ fix’ the problem.
No further serious efforts to alter this law have been heard of since.
In part because of the post-marital naming issue, on the list of developed countries, Japan is now considered one of the worst offenders regarding gender equality issues.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report of WEF (World Economic Forum), Japan is currently ranked 120 out of 156 countries listed.
While Japan remains socially conservative, other countries are dedicating themselves to change. But not all.
In the United Kingdom, over 90% of women are using their husband’s surnames nowadays. The statistics may seem surprising, but they do have the right to choose whether to have their surnames changed – or not.
Another study involving 1,500 British nationals indicates that only 59% of women still want to change their surnames after marriage, a significant difference when compared to those that actually do so.
In the Czech Republic, women must still change their surnames into a feminine form.
For example, they will usually add “ová” after the original surname, even for foreigners, thus former Secretary of State for the US – Hillary Clinton – becomes Hillary Clintonová.
But nowadays, former attorney general of the Czech Republic Helena Válková has requested a modification of this regulation as women demand the right to keep their original surnames instead of it being ‘feminized’
The proposal has passed the Czech House of Representatives, and has been sent to the national Senate for a vote.
Back in Japan, research indicates that over 70% of Japanese do not mind using different surnames after marriage.
One such person, Ida Naho says when she was dealing with administrative processes related to changing her last name, she felt as if she were losing her identity.
She hopes that people will at least have the right to decide for themselves who they are by keeping their original family names.
It is also worth mentioning that in one of Japan’s closest neighbors, Taiwan, there are problems on the issue of names as foreign residents “must have” a Chinese name.
The Chinese language name they choose will be applied to official documents like ID cards, used on bank accounts etc. This will also lead to a violation of foreigners’ own identity.
It seems that there is still a long way to go related to issues of equality in both Japan and Taiwan.
By: Kent Kuo
Image: Hannah Ku – Unsplash