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Volunteers petition local gov'ts to allow married Japanese to choose different surnames

This screen capture shows the homepage of the volunteer group Sentakuteki Fufu Bessei Zenkoku Chinjo Action (Optional different surname national petition action), headed by Naho Ida, that is campaigning to have appeals and petitions filed with local municipalities demanding separate surnames be allowed for marriages between Japanese nationals.

TOKYO -- A movement to allow Japanese couples to choose different surnames upon marriage through filing appeals and petitions to local municipal assemblies across Japan is spreading.

It has been three years since the Supreme Court ruled that Article 750 of the Civil Code, which does not allow married Japanese couples to have different surnames, was constitutional. With local elections coming up this spring, momentum is building once more to request the right to choose to have the same or different family names.

Leading the call is Sentakuteki Fufu Bessei Zenkoku Chinjo Action (Optional different surname national petition action), a volunteer group. Director Naho Ida, 43, of Tokyo's Nakano Ward, opened her website at the end of November last year. In a little over a month, she had amassed roughly 60 members. Currently, the group's members are preparing appeals and petitions in over 30 municipalities nationwide, mostly in Tokyo.

Ida became interested in the issue when it affected her first-hand. She has so far gone through the process of changing her surname once when she married, and changing it again when she divorced. Especially when it came to the family name for her children, she was conflicted. When she went to consult her local National Diet House of Representatives lawmaker Fumiaki Matsumoto, of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), he suggested that she start up petition activities aimed toward local assemblies around the country. "If the voters don't speak up, then the government won't budge," he told her.

Ida, who had never been involved in political activities before, submitted an appeal to the assembly of Nakano Ward together with others whose support she garnered over social media. In a first for Tokyo's 23 wards, Nakano approved an opinion document calling for the National Diet and the central government to establish a system for couples to choose separate names by a majority. A similar opinion was also adopted by the assembly of the Tokyo suburban city of Fuchu.

The core members of the group are between their 20s and 50s, and men make up roughly 30 percent of participants. Along with those who have been either legally married or had a common law marriage and experienced the trouble of changing their names, there are also unmarried women in their teens and 20s who "want to get married and have a child," but do not want to get married because they would be forced to change their surname, Ida said.

Change can also be seen on the national level. According to the secretariat of the lower house of the Diet, it has received 325 opinion documents with the words "married couple" or "separate surnames" in the title. Of them, roughly 300 were filed in opposition to having couples be allowed to have different family names, and were concentrated around 2010, when the conservative group the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) began its signature gathering activities against separate family names.

Meanwhile, all of the documents submitted after 2015 call instead for the establishment of a system that allows Japanese couples to choose. Particularly after the 2018 announcement of the results of a public opinion poll carried out by the Cabinet Office from November to December 2017, in which those in favor of choice of surname outnumbered those against, the number of requests for the government to introduce a new system are flooding in one after another.

While the Family Register Act allows for a couple to both keep their surnames if it is a union between a Japanese and a foreign national, in marriages between two Japanese people, it is required by law to choose one family name or the other. Last year, Yoshihisa Aono, the president of software development company Cybozu Inc., filed a lawsuit against the government that this distinction was unreasonable.

Aono agrees with the current tide of the movement picking up speed again, and has started working to get a petition filed in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward. "I hope to build up appeals and petitions all over the country, so we can start local in order to force the Diet to act," he said.

Tokyo Institute of Technology professor of philosophy Koichiro Kokubun hailed the movement, saying, "It's an important point that the campaign has convinced people that 'it is OK to raise our voices against the government.'" Kokubun was involved in realizing the first referendum in Tokyo through direct requests from the residents of the suburban city of Kodaira concerning the plans to construct a new road.

"In politics, even if you raise your voice, things don't change so easily, but if you stay quiet, then nothing will happen," he continued. "Voting alone is not enough to make a democracy function. Appeals, petitions, demonstrations -- it is important to use a variety of routes in order for public opinion to reach the places were policy decisions are made."

(Japanese original by Ayako Oguni, General Digital News Department)

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