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In Japan, Couples Are Still Legally Required to Have the Same Surname

The Supreme Court upheld a century-old law that was challenged by equal rights activitsts

After this traditional Japanese wedding ceremony, the bride is required to take her new husband’s surname (Jose Fuste Raga/Corbis)
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In many countries and traditions, marriage comes with a name change, almost always for the woman. Yet about 20 percent of American women opt to keep their names and do not take on the name of their spouse. Other couples hyphenate, and sometimes a man will even take his wife’s surname. But that freedom of choice is barred in Japan. There, the Supreme Court recently upheld a century-old law that married couples must share a surname.

The decision came "as a blow to women’s rights activists," reports the BBC. The vast majority of couples use the husband’s surname, so the practice is discriminatory, the activists say. 

When 80-year-old Kyoko Tsukamoto heard the ruling she says she started crying, reports Jonathan Soble for the New York Times. The retired high school teacher was one of the plaintiffs trying to change the law. She and her husband of 55 years registered their marriage only to keep their three children from being born out of wedlock. They divorced and remarried, in protest of the law, between each of the children’s births. "My name is Kyoko Tsukamoto, but I can’t live or die as Kyoko Tsukamoto," she tells the Times. Instead, her legal married name, Kojima, appears on all her official government records.

Judge Itsuro Terada, the chief justice hearing the case, justified his decision by saying that the law’s effect isn’t strong because there is already widespread, informal use of maiden names. The government has allowed married civil servants to use the surname from their unmarried days since 2001, Sobel reports for the Times

While the question of married names may seem to some as a small fight in the larger context of gender equality, the history demonstrates its significance. In 1855, American equal rights activist Lucy Stone kept her name when she married the abolitionist Henry Blackwell. "A wife should no more take her husband's name than he should hers," she said at the time, according to Biography.com. "My name is my identity and must not be lost."

Many countries let their residents choose whether to change their surnames when getting married, and some have laws that prohibit requiring a woman to change her name, reports the BBC. Others are more extreme. In Greece, married people, male or female, have to petition to change their name. In Quebec, a woman is actually barred from taking her husband’s surname. It’s still rare and difficult for men to take their wife’s surnames in many places.

Though there is no law that requires a woman to take her spouse's name in the U.S., the decision can still be fraught, report Claire Cain Miller and Derke Willis for the New York Times "This is the strongest gendered social norm that we enforce and expect," Laurie Scheuble, who teaches sociology at Penn State, tells Miller and Willis. The heavy weight of tradition explains why most women do change their surname when they marry, though keeping maiden names is on the rise. 

That tradition was behind the recent decision in Japan. Terada says that a single family name is "deeply rooted in our society," Tomohiro Osaki reports for the Japan Times. Terada adds that it "enables people to identify themselves as part of a family in the eyes of others."

To change the surname law, activists will have to turn away from the court and appeal to the legislature. However, they are still likely to face resistance: Osaki reports for Japan Times that respondents to two different surveys were evenly split between those for and against the surname law. 

There was one small win that came of the surname case in Japan, however: the court went ahead and overturned a separate century-old statute that prevented women from remarrying within six months of their divorce, originally designed "to help determine the paternity of a child born shortly after the divorce," reports the BBC

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