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Name recognition: Separate surnames for spouses gains traction in Japanese society

Izumi Onchi, second from right, and her legal team speak at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan about her lawsuit against the government, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 13, 2019. (Mainichi/Mami Yoshinaga)

TOKYO -- It is impossible for Japanese married couples to have separate surnames under the country's Civil Code. In 2015, the Supreme Court declared this constitutional, and since then the government has turned aside every lawsuit seeking change. In short, the national legal debate on keeping different surnames after marriage has ground to a standstill.

Meanwhile, popular support for separate surnames is gaining ground, and a string of local government assemblies across Japan have adopted formal calls for the surname system to be changed.

The latest legal attempt to force reform were dismissed in October and November. The suits, filed at three district courts including the Tokyo District Court by common law spouses residing in the western city of Hiroshima and in Tokyo, demanded restitution from the central government and argued the Civil Code is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs intend to appeal.

Before the couples filed their separate surname suits in May 2018, a legal action support group called Bessei was formed that January to help spread awareness and understanding of the issue.

Bessei was formed by people who insisted that the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling was not the end of the issue. It now has 176 members nationwide, not all of them common law spouses; there are also formally married couples using their surname as listed on the family register and singles, spanning multiple generations.

They hold information exchange events in Tokyo and Hiroshima, invite in experts for family law study sessions, and otherwise create spaces where people can communicate freely on the surname issue. They also provide advice to couples who want to keep their names as-is after getting hitched but who are wavering in the face of family opposition, including how to talk their parents around to the idea and ways to get married that promote keeping different surnames.

Journalist Keiko Fukuzawa, a founding member of Bessei who has been involved in the surname issue for some three decades, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The call to allow separate surnames has permeated multiple layers of society to become a mass movement."

Meanwhile, another organization called "Sentakuteki Fufu Bessei, Zenkoku Chinjo Action" (selective separate spousal surname national petition action) -- composed mainly of people who have dealt with serious problems stemming from having to change their name after marriage -- has been lobbying local governments to take a stand on the issue.

The some 150-strong group uses petitions to urge local assemblies to press for changes to the married surname system. In the year the group has been active since November 2018, it has managed to get 31 prefectural or municipal councils, including in the Osaka and Mie prefectural assemblies, to adopt formal resolutions urging the Diet and the national government to legalize the system among other demands.

Behind these developments is a broad shift in Japanese society's attitudes to maintaining different surnames in marriage. In a November-December 2017 Cabinet Office nationwide survey of opinions regarding family law, 42.5% of respondents said they had "no problem" with reforming the single spousal surname provision, as against 29.3% who answered there was no need for a revision -- the biggest gap recorded on the issue in the history of the survey.

Debate on giving couples the option of keeping separate surnames has moved nowhere fast in the National Diet. On the other hand, as part of its women's empowerment policy, the government has promoted and paved the way for people to keep using their premarital names on public documents and other papers.

For example, in November this year it became possible to list both one's premarital name and legal surname as listed on the family register, on residency certificates or "My Number" ID card copies. The government set aside some 19.4 billion yen as a budget to help local authorities pay for the system updates needed to implement the policy. However, as the actual costs exceed this subsidy by some tens of millions of yen in many municipalities, some are having to bear additional outlays.

Meanwhile, it has been possible to list one's premarital surname in brackets on Japanese passports for some time -- a process the government is moving to make simpler. However, the bracketed surname has apparently proved confusing to immigration officers in other countries, resulting in some trouble at border crossings, prompting the government to mull alternative methods to display people's premarital names.

Furthermore, while using premarital names in public has gained traction, moves to make legally separate surnames for spouses a reality have stalled. In 1996, the Ministry of Justice's Legislative Council recommended allowing married couples to have different surnames, and the ministry itself tried twice -- that year and again in 2010 -- to introduce Civil Code amendment bills to put the recommendation into law. On both occasions, however, the bills were met with stiff resistance from parties including the Liberal Democratic Party and were never tabled in the Diet.

"Being able to add your premarital name to documents alongside your legal family register name is no substitute for the option to legally keep your own surname after marriage," commented Izumi Onchi, one of the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuits over the issue. She stated, "Inscribing both a person's surnames (on documents) can also give away their marital status. People should be allowed to choose whether to change their name and use the double-entry surname option or keep their original surname. I want the government to accept the (ministry) recommendation and change the law."

(Japanese original by Mami Yoshinaga and Kayo Mukuda, Lifestyle & Medical News Department)

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