Japanese women fight to change 19th century marriage law

Do different surnames really cause societal decay?

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Five women in Japan are going against their government in the third round of a legal fight to keep their personal identity and their family names.

They are fighting to change Article 750 of the Civil Code which dates back to 1896. The law made it mandatory that married couples take the same surname and while it doesn’t specify which partner has to make the change, The Japan Times reports that at a rate of 96 per cent it is almost exclusively women taking on new names.

The Guardian reports that the women filing the suit claim the law violates the civil rights of married couples and is therefore unconstitutional. They are also seeking compensation.

“By losing your surname … you’re being made light of, you’re not respected … It’s as if part of your self vanishes,” said Kaori Oguni, one of the five women involved in the lawsuit.

Oguni took her husband’s name when they got married, but uses her maiden name when working professionally as a translator, which can be a headache for documentation.

“If changing surnames is so easy, why don’t more men do it?” asked Oguni. “The system is one that says, basically, if you’re not willing to change, you shouldn’t be getting married.”

Which is exactly what some couples have done.

Upper House lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima has been with her partner, Yuichi Kaido, for almost 40 years. The couple was never officially married because they wanted to keep their own names.

“I am Mizuho Fukushima and I didn’t understand why I had to be absorbed and merged (into another family),” Fukushima said.

“I felt like I was going to completely lose my identity by becoming Yuichi Fukushima, which also happened to be the name of an acquaintance of mine,” Kaido said, adding that he thinks forcing women to take their husband’s last name works against gender equality in Japan.

The couple never married but had a daughter who they allowed choose her own last name when she was old enough to decide. She chose her father’s surname, Kaido.

In 1985 the country ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and also enacted laws for equal employment and gender equity. But the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has continually argued that there are still many discriminatory laws in the country should take efforts to revise and correct, particularly Article 750.

Public opinion among the Japanese is split, and two previous courts have already ruled against the women. Opponents to the law change argue that changing it could disrupt the social structure and create rifts among families.

“Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order and the basis for social welfare,” constitutional scholar Masaomi Takanori told NHK public television.

The decision is expected Dec. 16. It coincides with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to get more women into the workforce, and if it passes it could be a new era for Japanese women, where they don’t have abandon their history for their future.

“There is no right or wrong answer because happiness is different for each person,” explained Fukushima. “Life is diverse and the important thing is that people be allowed to choose how they want to live their life.”