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Home > Media Reiews > News Review Last Updated: 14:52 03/09/2007
News Review #12: March 12, 2002

In Japan, Women Fight for the Last Word on Last Names

Reviewed By Hitoshi URABE

"In Japan, Women Fight for the Last Word on Last Names"
By MARK MAGNIER, Los Angeles Times

Japanese civil code presently requires a couple to adopt a single surname, upon official registration of marriage, which has been of either the husband's or the wife's. The article introduces a movement to revise the relative laws and rules so as to allow maintaining original, hence separate, surnames for each of husband and wife.

Statistics show that some 97% of couples have chosen the husband's surname to be used officially for their married life, and this has annoyed some people, such as Ms. Fukushima here.

It should be noted, however, that Ms. Mizuho Fukushima, introduced in the article, is a member of the Parliament belonging to Social Democratic Party, a minor party in both houses, so it happens to be her job to be a vocal proponent of a political agenda. This fact, of course, would not degrade in any way the importance of the issue, but it might have helped making the article a little more objective if Ms. Fukushima were described as such, considering that a perceived opponent, Ms. Takaichi, is introduced as a Parliament member at the outset.

The issue is rather complicated because the practice has been deeply interwoven into the history and culture of Japan, which prevents it from being discussed in an unbiased manner.

The most prominent people promoting for separate surnames are feminist groups, which is to be expected when the records show almost every couple has been selecting the husband's surname, though the opponents argue that the law does not require or promote either name to be used, so there is no discrimination.

A group of powerful proponents, interestingly, come from legal professionals. Resorting to the Article 24 of the Japanese Constitution stipulating that "Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes", many in this group claim that provisions in the civil code requiring to adopt a single surname upon marriage is already unconstitutional. Furthermore, they claim that people should have the right to choose their own names, upon marriage or not, where limitation is allowed only to avoid any threat to the social stability. Opponents argue that the issue is exactly that of social stability, which would be at stake if a married couple would not share a single surname.

One suggestion is to abolish the family registration system which officially records social status of a person, reportedly a very unique arrangement maintained solely in Japan, so that a choice of surnames could become a matter of practice, not law. There are others, especially among young people, who are simply not interested in acquiring the legal marital status, as they perceive marriage as a purely personal affair and the state has nothing to do with it.

In any case, the argument seems more symbolic than real. It is perhaps one of those traditional issues where one side is advocating an ideal or a principle, with a limited benefit of resolving some inconvenience, and the other wishing to maintain the conventional values with legal endorsement.

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