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Forced by law to use one surname, Japanese couple chooses to divorce every 3 years

A couple who get divorced every three years to switch the surname they go by is seen in Hachioji, Tokyo, on Oct. 11, 2021. (Mainichi/Kayo Mukuda)

TOKYO -- One Japanese couple here could not decide whose surname to take upon marriage, as demanded by law. Both husband and wife felt that they did not want to let go of the surname they had been born with. While they looked forward to the adoption of a selective surname system in Japan, progress toward that goal had been slow. Eventually, they decided that they would respect each other's wishes and move back and forth between their surnames. And now, they are looking toward a new path.

    Both 32, the husband, a civil servant, and the wife, a company employee, live in the western Tokyo suburb of Hachioji. They met when they were in college, and a few months into dating, their conversations turned to marriage. The woman began by saying that she did not want to change her surname. She was called by her close friends by a nickname that was a play on her last name, and so she was attached to it. The man responded with, "Don't women normally change their surnames to the guys'?" which led to a fight.

    After graduating, the two started working and their marriage talk became increasingly realistic. One day, during some small talk at work, the man heard of a couple who alternated surnames every three years, a story he then told the woman. The two decided they would do the same thing, and in 2016, had a wedding. They drew straws on their honeymoon in Vienna, and went on to use the husband's surname for the first three years of their marriage.

    The wife, who works for a foreign company, was planning on using her pre-marriage name at work. But due to security issues, such as possible identity theft, the use of two surnames was not permitted; she was asked to use her legal surname. She felt depressed every time someone called her by her legal surname.

    Three years later, the couple filed a divorce and then filed for marriage under the wife's surname. The husband went by his original surname at work, but when it came to paperwork regarding his salary or voting slips, his legal name was used. "In important settings, I was reminded that my name was not my name," he said.

    It was not like the couple wanted to get divorced, even if only on paper. They petitioned the family court to change surnames on their family registry twice while still in their "first" marriage, but both requests were denied.

    Then a Tokyo District Court ruling caught their eyes.

    Kazuhiro Soda and Kiyoko Kashiwagi hold an online press conference after the Tokyo District Court ruled on their marriage status on April 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Koji Endo)

    Film director Kazuhiro Soda and his wife, Kiyoko Kashiwagi, married with their respective surnames under New York law in 1997. In 2018, they submitted a marriage registration form under their separate surnames to the Chiyoda Ward Office in Tokyo, but it was rejected. The Tokyo District Court ruled in April 2021 that the appropriate way to seek legal confirmation by noting a marital relationship on a family registry with different surnames would be to petition the family court, but also recognized the couple's marital status in Japan.

    Hiroyuki Takeshita, Soda and Kashiwagi's attorney in the case, said, "It's probably the first time that a marriage between two people with different surnames abroad was recognized in Japan." He continued, "It is twisted that getting legally married abroad is the only way that a married couple can legally have separate surnames, and in a normal situation, everyone should have the option to select one's surname at the time of marriage. If many married couples choose the (going abroad) method, there will come a need to proactively debate how their family registers should be filled out.

    Now there are couples who are making the leap. A thirtysomething woman in Tokyo got a divorce in the fall of 2021, and went to Guam, where she and her partner got married under their respective surnames.

    The couple introduced at the beginning of this article, who have now been divorced and remarried to switch surnames, will divorce again in July to go back to the husband's surname. There's also an option of travelling abroad together to get legally married there while maintaining their respective last names. They both wish they could live by the names they were born with and say that though they are anxious, they want to try other options.

    Keiko Fukuzawa, a journalist and head of Bessei sosho o sasaeru kai (Group supporting dual surname lawsuits), and who herself has been in a common-law marriage for at least 30 years, says that she has become aware of problems such as nursing homes that do not allow common-law couples to live in the same room, and common-law couples not getting the same treatment as legally-married couples when it comes to inheritance issues. She said that the option of getting legally married abroad to be recognized as married in Japan should be "more widely known," and that eventually, she wants to do so herself, so that she can run guided tours for other people.

    (Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda, Tokyo City News Department)

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