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Japan's Civil Code provisions on surnames, remarriage out of date

The Civil Code provisions that ban married couples from using separate surnames and prohibit women from remarrying for a period of six months after divorce both derive from the Meiji-era Civil Code enacted in 1898, indicating legislation established more than a century ago still binds modern-day families in Japan.

    While the country awaits a Supreme Court Grand Bench verdict on the constitutionality of those provisions scheduled for Dec. 16, other countries are moving to review similar regulations.

    Laws pertaining to family names often reflect a country's history and culture. Many countries allow married couples to use separate surnames, while some countries permit the use of double-barreled names, which hyphenate one's maiden name and their partner's surname. Japan is believed to be the only country in the world that legally obliges married couples to use a single surname.

    A growing number of countries are reviewing their surname systems from the viewpoint of equality for men and women. In Germany, where previously a married couple basically chose a single surname and a woman adopted her husband's surname only in case the couple failed to reach an agreement over which surname to take on, the country's Federal Constitutional Court found it unconstitutional to force a woman to adopt her husband's surname. This ruling led to a legal revision allowing separate surnames for married couples in 1993.

    The way children's surnames are determined also varies from one country to another. While children in some countries are expected to adopt their father's surname, kids in France can choose between their mother's and father's surname, or even double-barrel their parents' surnames. It is also common in many countries that when a couple has two children or more, the children use a single surname.

    Meanwhile, many countries still retain the remarriage ban period for divorced women similar to that of Japan. This is largely due to the difficulty in determining the paternity of a child born to a woman who remarried shortly after divorce. Some countries even set the prohibition period longer than that of Japan.

    However, many countries flexibly apply those regulations, such as exempting a woman from the ban if she is found not to have been pregnant at the time of divorce. There has recently been a strong move globally to abolish those restrictions in light of attaching weight to the freedom of marriage.

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