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Debate on separate surnames for Japanese couples intensifies within ruling party

The first meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party's working team, which is debating naming rules in Japan, is seen hearing an address by its chairman Nobuteru Ishihara, standing, on April 2, 2021, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Legislators from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) debated the contentious issue of whether married Japanese couples should be allowed to keep different surnames during the first meeting of the party's working team on Japanese names on April 2.

    At the meeting, lawmakers in favor of and those more cautious about making changes engaged in discussion for about an hour and a half. There are concerns disagreement between the sides could intensify, and party executives are anxious as to how talks will progress.

    The talks come amid a focus on whether the party will include a statement on the issue in its manifesto for the next House of Representatives election.

    The working team's chairperson, former LDP Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara, told assembled reporters after the meeting, "Policy Research Council Chairperson Hakubun Shimomura has told us that, whatever the case, we must finalize what the point of contention is. This is not being done with the election in mind."

    Ishihara maintained that the aim of the working team is to organize the specific points of discussion before the Supreme Court hands down its ruling on the issue. In December 2020, a special appeal on a domestic relations ruling regarding the constitutionality of regulations in the Civil Code and the Family Register Act pertaining to married couples having the same surname was referred to the Supreme Court's Grand Bench. Ishihara, however, indicated it may be difficult to summarize the issue quickly. "We may not be in time for the election, depending on when it's held," he said.

    At the first working team meeting, 23 lawmakers gave their opinions. The participants were reportedly split almost down the middle on the issues that were presented.

    Former Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue Eriko Yamatani, a member of the skeptical camp, explained that she thinks the unofficial use of pre-marriage surnames in everyday life should be expanded, saying, "I want to see caution, as this issue involves the foundation of the family and the public good. For the sake of women's activities in society, I want us to go ahead with a sense of urgency to correct areas where use of unofficial surnames is not allowed."

    Meanwhile, former Minister of Defense Takeshi Iwaya, who is in favor of allowing a choice to keep separate surnames, said, "This is an issue which can't be solved simply (by expanding provisions for unofficial surname use), and there are people whose wishes are not being met."

    In the back of politicians' minds are the campaign pledges for the next lower house election. On March 25, the group in favor of separate surnames launched an all-parliamentary group on the issue. Including those attending as lawmakers'' representative, around 100 people took part in the launch meeting. House of Representatives lawmaker Yosei Ide, who spearheaded the group's formation, said, "I want us to take action to ensure our opinions are reflected in discussion on the pledges."

    In response, a cross-parliamentary group of lawmakers skeptical of the changes was formed on April 1. It is primarily focused on promoting the expanded use of unofficial names. It managed to bring together 140 people at its launch meeting, including those attending on the politicians' behalf, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Hirofumi Nakasone, who promoted its formation, said, "The LDP has fought countless elections now with pledges to work to further the recognized use of former surnames in wider contexts."

    The opposition between the two groups has continued since the policy formulation for the fifth basic plan for a gender-equal society in 2020, but now arguments appear to have intensified further.

    One party grandee asserted, "If both sides can't behave themselves, it will make it look like the whole party is divided." A lawmaker with Cabinet-level experience pointed out, "The group in favor is taking younger voters in consideration, and the skeptical group, conservatives. We can't have a conclusion which disregards one or the other."

    With these concerns in mind, officials on the working team have indicated they want it to convene "once every two to three weeks," and that there is "no need to force a conclusion."

    At an April 2 press conference, LDP General Council Chairperson Tsutomu Sato said only, "I'd like to anticipate a set of conclusions that can lead us to the next step."

    (Japanese original by Minami Nomaguchi, Hiroshi Odanaka and Shuhei Endo, Political News Department)

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