Japanese Women Lose Court Battle To Keep Their Names After Marriage

photo: Mint Images/REX Shutterstock.
Update: Japan's Supreme Court upheld the century-old law requiring that married couples share a last name, according to the BBC. In a decision issued Wednesday, the court rejected arguments that the law is unconstitutional and a violation of civil rights. Judge Itsuro Terada said it would now be up to the country's politicians to decide whether to pass a new law allowing separate names after marriage.

This story was originally published on December 12, 2015.

Women in Japan are suing their national government over laws that require married couples to share the same last name, saying the laws are outdated and in violation of the couples’ civil rights.

The Guardian
reports that five women are suing over the right to keep their last names separate from their spouses. Since 1896, Japan’s laws have required that couples registering their marriage adopt a common surname. Though the law doesn’t specify which spouse’s name must be chosen, traditionally it is the woman who adopts her new husband’s name, with more than 96% of women choosing to take their husbands’ name.

Conservatives say that having a common surname keeps family ties strong. Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor of constitutional law at Reitaku University, told The Japan Times that “a family with the same last name has a sense of unity. If parents and siblings all have different names, whose family is it?”

But those who advocate separate names see it as a way to maintain one’s personal identity. Kaori Oguni, one of the women involved in the lawsuit, told Reuters that when changing one’s name, “it’s as if part of your self vanishes.”

Much like in America, keeping one’s maiden name is important for professional women, who may not want to lose the name by which colleagues and clients know them. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing for women to join the workforce in greater numbers to help bolster Japan’s economy, but accusations of institutionalized misogyny and harassment to women have proven to be stumbling blocks. The trouble involved in keeping one’s name is another hindrance to working women.

A decision by Japan’s Supreme Court is due on December 16.

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