The “Double Surnames” Issue in Japan
Nagoya Women’s Studies Group
In the present Japanese civil code, a “single surname” system is applied to married couples. Under this current law, a woman and a man can choose either surname of the two. The majority of marrying couples choose the husband’s surname. This practice has been criticized as discriminatory against women by many Japanese feminists, and the controversy is now widely known as the “double surnames for a married couple” issue. Many attempts have been made to solve this problem, and even a draft allowing a husband and a wife to have different surnames was prepared and made into a bill, but the bill has not been passed yet.
This essay will begin with a discussion of the Meiji Civil Code of 1898, which was highly patriarchal and heavily limited women’s rights, and then provide an explanation of the revised Civil Code of the post-World War II period. Article 750 of the revised Code is controversial, and will be studied showing the results of surveys and citing Kindaikazoku no seiritsu to shuuen (The formation and end of the modern family), a well-known feminist’s, opinion. There will also be a brief account of the revision of the Code in 1976 where the choice of a surname after divorce is stated. The inconveniences as well as disadvantages faced by married or divorced women regarding the change of their surnames will also be discussed.
Lastly, the results of an interview which was conducted in order to elicit women’s views of the importance of keeping their surnames will be analyzed.
The Meiji Civil Code of 1898
The Meiji Civil Code went into effect in 1898. In the Code, each family household was considered a socio-political unit, and all members of a family household were registered in the same koseki registration, while the head of each household, who was usually male, was authorized to control his household members and assets. This system was called an ie-system. Under this system, all the members of a household were required to use the same surname.
The Code made divorce unfairly difficult for women but rather easy for men. Most middle-and-upper-class women thought of marriage as a lifelong commitment. If a woman who had children divorced, she normally had to leave them with her former husband and his family. The social stigma was sometimes unbearable for the woman and her family. In a way, by marrying into her husband’s family and taking her husband’s name, a woman not only abandoned her own surname, but also gave up the possibility of living her own life. Instead, she resigned herself to living the life she was expected to live by the family she married into.
The New Civil Code and Article 750
The Meiji Civil Code was revised
in 1947 in a way that gave women more rights than before the war, and the New
Civil Code became effective the following year. The ie-system was
abolished in the new code, and instead an individual family koseki-registration was adopted.
In this system, when a man and a woman get married, they each leave
their parents’ koseki-registration and
create a new koseki-registration for
themselves, with the husband as the head of the household. Article 750 in the
New Civil Code stipulates that “a married couple shall use either the husband’s
or the wife’s surname in accordance with their agreement at the time of
marriage.” It gives the husband and
wife equal rights in deciding the choice of surname. However, a new problem arises regarding this provision of Article
750 because in reality, 97.5 percent of women change their surnames at the time
of marriage, and take their husband’s.
The statement that ‘either the husband’s or the wife’s surname shall be used’ is fair enough, but it works unfavorably against women. Takuo Yamada, a scholar of the Civil Code, points out that the choice of a surname should be made by mutual consent, but a woman is usually forced to choose the surname of her husband. This expectation is embedded in society by the prevalent view that men are supposed to maintain their lineage, making it a shame for a man to change his surname.
A public opinion survey on separate surnames for married couples was conducted in 2001 among 5,000 married people aged 20 to over 70 years of age, of which 2,461 were women (the response rate was 69.7 percent). One question for female participants was how they felt when they changed their surnames. 42.8 percent responded that they felt happiness at this start to their new lives and 26.8 percent felt the joy of togetherness with their spouse.
Among the women surveyed, there were 24.7 percent who felt discomfort about the change in their surnames. Moreover, 7.6 percent of them said they felt their identity had been lost. Generally speaking, such a respondent was an economically independent career woman who had continued working after marriage while rearing her children.
One of the propositions for the amendment of the Civil Code is to abolish the current family koseki-registration and to create an individual koseki-registration so that each individual is able to keep her or his surname even after marriage. According to the 2001 public opinion survey, the supporters of the double surnames’ bill outnumber the opponents for the first time. Those who agreed with the amendment increased from 32.5 percent in 1996 to 42.1 percent in 2001. One notable change was that nearly 52 percent of men and women in their 20s and 30s agreed with the amendment. This might be a sign of a change towards a more diversified society that welcomes the option of taking double surnames. On the other hand, 53.3 percent of women agreed with the revision of the law, but stated they would not opt for separate surnames even if the law was revised. It is difficult to change the social behavior and consciousness ingrained in their attitude towards the law and the idea of marriage.
The Revision of Civil Code in
In the New Civil Code of 1947, women were obliged to relinquish their married names, that is, their husbands’ surnames after divorce, and resume their former surnames. However, women were allowed to retain the use of their married surnames in the 1976 revision of the code, which gave a spouse, in most cases a woman, the right to choose her or his married surname or his or her own family name at the time of divorce. Women acquired the right to choose their surnames at the end of marriage. Next, they must gain the right to choose their own or their husbands’ surnames at the time of entry into marriage.
I would like to illustrate why this is important by using the real example of Ms Mori (cited in “Women’s and Men’s Studies Society” (1997) Atto odoroku kosekino hanashi). When a married couple divorces, it is generally the woman who has her name deleted from the family koseki-registration. The two options available to her are to keep her married surname or return to her maiden name. In the case of Ms Mori, she chose the latter. First she had to withdraw her name from her ex-husband’s family koseki-registration and make a new one in which she was listed with her maiden name, Mori, as the head of the family household. Her only son still remained in his father’s family registration. However, she obtained the custody of her son, and therefore she had to remove his name from his father’s registration in order to list it in her family registration. In order to transfer his entry to her registration, she had to make an application to the family court. A week later, Ms. Mori and her son were registered under the same koseki-registration. Next, she had to change the surname on her driver’s license, bankbooks, life insurance policies and credit cards. Certainly divorce is not expected at the time of marriage. Nonetheless, if a married couple is legally allowed to retain their respective surnames at the time of marriage, it will definitely save a woman time, money, and energy if divorce should occur, and she will not have to go through any additional psychological torment resulting from complicated procedures related to the change of her surname.
Three Women’s Perspectives
Interviews were conducted with three Japanese women who have their own ideas about the surname issue. Tomomi Takahashi, at the age of 50, has used her own surname at work even after marriage. She confesses she does not want to give up her individuality, especially at work. Further, there are two nameplates displayed on the door of the couple’s house, one with her husband’s surname, and the other bearing her maiden name. Sachiko Kawasaki is 40 years old, and lives with her partner but is not married in order to retain her own surname. She is not interested in marriage as an attempt to guarantee financial support from her spouse. She also says that a patriarchal system exists in society. Many traditionally minded older men do not like different surnames for a married couple because they like to be represented as the boss and the head of the family. The family system invisibly controls these men’s attitudes and their way of thinking. In the end, Sachiko Kawasaki predicts, it will take another two generations for the family registration system to be revised as an individual registration system, as most women still think that it is beneficial for them to marry legally and change their surnames. Mariko Okada in her early 40s has a partner, but kept her own surname by first registering her marriage then going through a “paper divorce.” Okada decided to register her marriage and placed her own entry in her husband’s registration and changed her surname to his, before making an application to the Public Housing Corporation because only legally married couples could apply for renting an apartment - a de facto relationship would disqualify them from making an application. However, a year later, Okada removed her entry from her husband’s family koseki-registration and established her own.
These women think that their own surnames are more important to retain in order to nurture and uphold their self-esteem, self-respect, and self-identity rather than simply following a social rule or custom related to marriage by changing their surnames to those of their partners.
Women still appear to believe in the efficacy of their economic dependence on men. Tokyo University professor Chizuko Ueno argues that the main reason women feel social pressure to marry and change their surnames is to find financial security. A woman easily throw away her maiden name when she cannot expect to inherit property from her destitute parents’ home or is deprived of her inheritance rights by her parents.
The advantage of separate surnames for a married couple is to allow a couple to build an equal partnership in marriage. Men should share responsibility of household duties and women should continue working equally as men. Men as well as women should be liberated from a consciousness of the ie-family system and the gender division of labor. If the different surnames’ bill is passed, more diversified lifestyles of men and women will be seen in Japanese society. The passage of the different surnames’ bill will increase the nation’s marital options and secure the right to choose.
It is very important for a woman to have a variety of options in society and the right to choose among them. Her surname after marriage should be one of these options. The 2001 public survey showed the supporters of the double surnames bill outnumbered the opponents for the first time. Especially, younger generations support the bill. It might be an optimistic view, but in the near future the number of supporters for the double surnames for a married couple’s bill may increase to the extent that they can move voters to raise their voices and pass the bill in the Diet. Then, Japanese women will have more freedom and be able to lead more diversified lifestyles.
Koseisho-daijin-kanbo-jyohobu, Jinkodotai-toukeibu, (Minister's Secretariat information).
Sentakuteki fuufu bessei seido (The selective separate surname systems for married couples), <http://www8.cao.go.jp/survey/h13/fuufu/index.html> on Aug./13/2004 at 6:25 p.m., Japan time.
Takahashi, Kikue & Orii, Miyako & Ninomiya Shuuhei (1995) Fuufu bessei eno shotai (An invitation to married couples to have separate surnames), p.194. Yuuhikaku sensho: Tokyo.
Tomioka, Emiko & Yoshioka, Mutsuko (2001) Gendainihon no Jyosei to Jinken (Women and human rights in modern Japan), p. 270, Akashi shoten: Tokyo.
Ueno, Chizuko (1998) Kindaikazoku no seiritsu to shuuen (The formation and end of the modern family), pp. 245-254, Iwanami-shinsho: Tokyo. Bureau in Health and Welfare Ministry, Vital Statistics Division), 1993.
“Women’s and Men’s Studies Society (1997) Atto odoroku kosekino hanashi. Aichi Shukutoku University: Nagoya.”
 As for marriage, the Code stipulated that a woman should marry into her husband’s family and her entry in her parents’ family koseki-registration was transferred into her husband’s. Therefore, at the time of marriage, a woman changed her surname to that of her husband. Thus, a woman deserted her birth group and was assimilated into her husband’s and his relatives’ group. Likewise, their children entered their father’s family.
 Koseisho-daijin-kanbo-jyohobu, Jinkodotai-toukeibu, (Minister's Secretariat information
Bureau in Health and Welfare Ministry, Vital Statistics Division), 1993.
 Takahashi, Kikue & Orii, Miyako & Ninomiya Shuuhei (1995) Fuufu bessei eno shotai (An invitation to married couples to have separate surnames), p.194. Yuuhikaku sensho: Tokyo.
 Sentakuteki fuufu bessei seido (The selective separate surname systems for married couples), <http://www8.cao.go.jp/survey/h13/fuufu/index.html> on Aug./13/2004 at 6:25 p.m., Japan time.
 Sentakuteki fuufu bessei seido, op. cit.
 Ueno, Chizuko (1998) Kindaikazoku no seiritsu to shuuen (The formation and end of the modern family), pp. 245-254, Iwanami-shinsho: Tokyo.
 Tomioka, Emiko & Yoshioka, Mutsuko (2001) Gendainihon no Jyosei to Jinken (Women and human rights in modern Japan), p. 270, Akashi shoten: Tokyo.
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