Japan upholds law on same surname for spouses

Ruling likely to satisfy conservatives, but it is a defeat for activists who call statute sexist

TOKYO • Japan's Supreme Court has upheld a law that married couples must have a common surname, a defeat for campaigners who have blasted the 19th century statute as sexist and archaic.

The top court's Grand Bench - its highest ruling body - said yesterday that the law did not violate the Constitution, broadcaster NHK and other Japanese media reported.

The ruling is likely to satisfy conservatives, who call it essential to maintaining the country's family structure.

In a separate decision, the Supreme Court also said a six-month waiting period for women remarrying after divorce was excessive and should be reduced.

The surname rule is a throwback to Japan's feudal family system, in which all women and children came under the control of the male head of the household. That system was abolished in 1948. However, Japan's civil code maintained the provision.

"It does not violate the Constitution," NHK quoted presiding Justice Itsuro Terada as saying.

Justice Terada noted that some people believe changing one's surname "can harm individual identity", but he added that the informal use of maiden names had eased the impact.

"Use of separate spousal names should be discussed by the legislature," he said, suggesting that parliamentarians could pass new legislation.

The statute does not specify which name a couple must take, but in practice, 96 per cent of married women take their husband's name. Many say this takes away their identity.

In 2011, five plaintiffs filed suit against the law which made many working women face the hassles of juggling two names - their maiden name for professional use and their legal married name, required on official documents.

Some couples opt not to register the marriage so they can keep separate names, but doing so creates legal headaches including parental and inheritance rights.

"My tears wouldn't stop overflowing when I heard the judgment," said Madam Kyoko Tsukamoto, an 80-year-old plaintiff who uses her maiden name but took her husband's name to have children.

"Now I won't be able to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Japan upholds law on same surname for spouses'. Print Edition | Subscribe