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Women in Japan are Fighting to Save their Own Last Names After Marriage

An age-old law in Japan reinforces that husbands and wives must have the same last name – but women are fighting back.
July 22, 2019, 5:19am
japan women marriage surname
Photo via Unsplash.

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

“Being forced to change your name is nothing more than a violation of human rights,” said Miki Haga. Two years ago, she got married and became Miki Ishizawa.

“It didn’t feel fair,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg.

In Japan, a centuries-old law requires married couples to have the same surname. While men can take their wives’ family name, only about 4 percent of them do. This means – more often than not – women have to change their names so that they do not break the law. This causes various complications, touching on everything from their careers to their legal proceedings.


Now, people are pushing to overturn the law.

Opposing political parties to Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister, has set gender equality as a primary concern. This issue over identity was brought into play during the campaign for Upper House in recent weeks. When asked on a debate stage about the law in question, Abe was the only candidate who did not raise his hand in support of a change. His party reportedly argues that it is based on tradition – which they intend to uphold.

On July 21, Abe secured his party’s win, despite the fact that he did not draw a supermajority of the votes. His platform focuses on the country’s finances and relationship with US President Donald Trump as its top priorities.

The history of the law is a point of contention in Japan. Members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) believe that underlying tradition should be enough to keep the law in place. Others demonstrated that the law isn’t as ancient as the LDP claims. Before 1898, the Japanese rarely used surnames at all. In 1948, couples could choose their surnames, as long as they agreed on one.

Japan appears to be inching towards solutions, but not a complete overturn of the law. This November, people will be allowed to use both last names on government ID cards.

The law has played a fundamental role in shaping relationships in Japan.

Some couples choose domestic partnerships over marriage because they do not want to abide by the so-called tradition. But by doing so, they are not permitted the same advantages married couples legally hold. For instance, only one can have legal custody of the couple’s children. They are also barred from the tax deductions normally provided for those who are married.

The law has also led to some people using their own last names in their professional lives, while legally using their spouse’s surname in other matters. This leads to widespread confusion, but many see it as a matter of principle.

Japan has been struggling to support gender equality in more ways than one.

Although Abe has promised that women will be better represented in Japan’s business world, this is yet to happen. Women hold only 4 percent of managerial positions and only 2 percent on boards of directors nationwide. When it comes to politics, only 10 percent of seats in the Lower House (Japan’s House of Representatives) are held by women. The parliament has long been male-dominated despite a rise in female candidates.

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