At a rally to mark International Women’s Day, representatives from dozens of women’s rights groups issued a joint statement to lawmakers urging them to do more to change the 125-year-old civil code that forces married couples to choose one last name.
“We strongly urge parliament to look into the matter and proceed immediately to a revision of the civil code,” the activists said in a statement they handed over to lawmakers who also attended the meeting in Tokyo.
Public support for a double surname option has grown, with surveys showing that a majority now support the option for married couples to keep separate surnames. Some couples have also filed lawsuits because the current law violates the constitutional guarantee of gender equality, as women almost always sacrifice their surname.
According to the Civil Code of 1898, a couple must take “the surname of the husband or wife” at the time of marriage – according to experts, this is the only such law in the world. Although the law does not specify which name, 95% of women take their husbands’ surnames, as paternalistic family values persist and women are generally seen as marrying into their husbands’ households.
A 1996 government panel recommendation that would allow couples to keep separate surnames has been shelved for nearly three decades due to opposition from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s conservative ruling party has increasingly faced calls to allow more diversity in family values and marriage. Many in his Liberal Democratic Party support traditional gender roles and a paternalistic family system, arguing that allowing the possibility of separate surnames would destroy family unity and affect children.
Rally organizer Yoko Sakamoto, a long-time activist calling for change, said it’s time to push harder. “We should even think about not voting for candidates who oppose the change in the next election,” she said.
Activists say the one-surname requirement almost always forces women to compromise and go to the trouble of changing their names on official documents and identity cards at work or elsewhere.
As more women pursue careers, a growing number of women want to continue using their maiden names at work, while using their registered surnames in legal documents. Some companies and government agencies now allow female employees to use their maiden names at work, but they are a minority and the measure is voluntary.
Due to outdated social and legal systems around family issues, younger Japanese are increasingly reluctant to marry and have children, contributing to a low birth rate and shrinking population. Some experts say Japan’s one-surname policy is one of the reasons why women are hesitant to get married.
A 2015 Supreme Court ruling urged parliament to discuss the surname issue rather than issue a legal judgement, but parliamentary deliberation has stalled due to opposition from Conservative members of the governing party.
The gender rights gap in Japan is one of the largest in the world. Japan was ranked 116th in a survey of 146 countries by the World Economic Forum for 2022, which measured progress toward gender equality based on economic and political participation, as well as education, health and other opportunities for women.