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Editorial: Time to allow married couples to use separate surnames

Just how long will Japanese couples be forced to adopt a single surname upon marriage? This year there has been a stream of claims from couples raising questions about a Civil Code provision that prevents husbands and wives in Japan from retaining separate surnames.

The CEO of a software development company recently filed a lawsuit in the Tokyo District Court arguing that the provision is unconstitutional, seeking damages from the government. The CEO adopted his wife's surname upon marriage. He still uses his original surname at work, but having a changed surname increases the burden for him when handling business transactions and going on business trips overseas. He argued in oral proceedings in his lawsuit that this was shackling management of his company.

Claims have arisen from other couples, too. Four couples in common-law marriages have filed family court action asking that they be allowed to keep separate surnames. One couple -- both teaching at university -- wanted to keep separate surnames from the perspective of continuing their research. The only option for them was to enter into a common-law marriage rather than officially getting married. The couple argue that the stipulation requiring a single surname is in effect a restriction on legal marriage for them.

Such claims are not unique. Not including elderly households, the ratio of households in Japan in which both partners work stands at about 60 percent. In a public opinion poll, more than 20 percent of respondents said they felt something was wrong with people's surnames changing upon marriage. Due to changes in society, more people feel that the state of being unable to adopt separate surnames is unfavorable to them.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Code stipulation that couples adopt either the name of the husband or wife at the time of marriage was constitutional. However, this was no monolithic ruling -- five of the 15 justices on the Supreme Court bench, including three women, were of the opinion that the stipulation was unconstitutional, and the court urged the Diet to debate the introduction of selective separate surnames for married couples. It is a shame that the legislative branch of government has still not moved to address the issue.

The form of marriages is growing diverse. Those against allowing separate surnames argue that doing so will damage family ties. But there are no countries besides Japan that require couples to adopt the same surname. And one cannot argue that there are no family ties in other countries.

The government widely allows public servants to use their original surnames, and there have been efforts to expand the use of birth names in society as a whole, including in the private sector.

However, many national qualifications are still registered under the person's surname on their family register. And when applying for a passport or setting up a bank account, people in principle are required to use the surname on their family register. Many people have complained about the hassle of using two names. Simply expanding the use of birth surnames in society does not provide a fundamental solution.

Under a system where married couples can select separate surnames, they are also free to use the same surname. We would like to see the inconvenience of being unable to select different surnames eliminated. The Diet should debate this issue, without leaving it by the wayside.

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