Will the day ever come when Japanese married couples are allowed to keep their respective surnames?
The Civil Law stipulates that married couples must adopt the family name of either the husband or wife.
Five citizens filed a lawsuit against this provision, claiming it violates the Constitution, which guarantees the dignity of individuals.
The Tokyo District Court heard the case, but its ruling on May 29 did not offer a solution for couples who want to keep their own family names even after they get married.
Changing one’s original family name after marriage has significant effects on many aspects of a person’s life.
For instance, it could cause an unwanted discontinuity in a person’s professional track record and relationships with people built through his or her work.
Some people feel that adopting a new family name changes an important element of their identity.
In Japan, 96 percent of married couples use the family name of the husband, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. That means the burden of having to change surnames is mostly carried by women.
A growing number of workplaces in Japan are adopting the policy of allowing workers to keep using their original family names even after they were legally changed due to marriage. But this has yet to become the norm in the Japanese business community.
Using one family name for official documents that serve as an ID, such as a driver’s license, and another for daily life frequently causes inconvenience and confusion.
The citizens who filed the lawsuit at the district court are also struggling with such problems. They are the kind of ordinary people who are found in every neighborhood.
There are also couples who live together but opt for a common-law marriage without registration. But such couples have to give up a variety of benefits that accompany a legally registered marriage, such as tax deductions and the right of inheritance. Their children are considered born out of wedlock.
This is a problem that has long been foreseen, as women have been playing an increasingly important role in society, and the structure of families has become more diversified. Lawmakers should have dealt with it through legislation long ago.
In 1996, the Justice Ministry drafted an outline of a proposal to revise the Civil Law that would give couples the choice of keeping their own family names after getting married. The proposal would have required all children born to such couples to have the same family name as either their father or mother.
But some lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party voiced opposition to the proposal, arguing the new system would cause the collapse of the family and undermine the sense of unity among family members.
As a result, the proposed revision to the law was not submitted to the Diet.
The government of the Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power in 2009, also failed to enact the proposed revision. The revision bill has been left in political limbo for 17 years.
If married couples retain their respective family names, that would reflect their personal views and thoughts. It is an exaggeration to say such a trend would lead to the collapse of the family.
The Civil Law requires married couples to adopt the same family name but doesn’t characterize the rule as indispensable for maintaining the institution of marriage or based on the fundamental nature of marriage. The district court recognized these aspects in its ruling.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has been arguing that forcing women to change their family names when they get married is problematic.
Many Western nations have adopted a system that allows married couples to choose whether they want to have the same family name or keep their respective ones.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 30
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