Japan Takes Steps Toward Abolishing Law That Requires Women To Change Last Names After Marriage

Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Reform by reform, Japan is getting closer to abolishing a law requiring married couples to share a last name that's been on the books since 1896, according to The Economist. While popular opinion in the country holds that people should be able to choose their last names, conservatives who believe in traditional gender roles insist that the law stays.

Women have sued the Japanese government, arguing that the law is unconstitutional and violates a couple's civil rights, but in 2015, the Supreme Court upheld it. The judge said that it would be up to politicians to pass a new law that would allow separate names after marriage.

There are, currently, a few workarounds: Working women who are married are permitted to use their maiden names at work, and female judges were recently allowed to sign rulings with either name. There are other changes in the works, including letting people use the name they want in dealings with local councils and possibly on their passports starting in 2019.

But despite these piecemeal signs of progress, women are required to alter their names in the koseki, which is the official register of the population — which means using their maiden names on other forms becomes a headache. The koseki is organized by family units, rather than individuals, with women transferring to their husband's entry when they get married. And while the law doesn't specify who must change their name, 96% of the time it's still the woman.

"I think it has a strong effect on the mindset of the people," Tomoshi Sakka, a lawyer in Okayama, Japan, who will next year represent a couple in challenging the law, told The Economist. "It creates the idea that a wife is to follow her husband after marriage."

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