Married Japanese women are still required to have the same last name as their husbands

Photo: Getty Images

To keep one’s maiden name as a woman in America is to assert a level of autonomy that — if not fully endorsed — is at the very least, available. A report from the New York Times in 2015 found that roughly 30 percent of American women now keep their maiden name in some way, almost double the number in 1990. But even here, the practice can raise eyebrows.

A 2011 study from Gender & Society found that at least 50 percent of Americans believe a woman should be required, by law, to take her husband’s name in marriage. In a more recent examination of why that is, researchers found a simple reason: “the belief that women should prioritize their marriage and their family ahead of themselves.”

It’s this very line of thinking that permeates a debate raging right now in Japan, where an archaic law dating back to the 1890s mandates that married couples go by one surname. Although the law technically allows couples to choose between either surname, the vast majority of them land on the man’s. What results is a law that’s left women feeling slighted, and men — who have recently begun fighting back — feeling guilty for stealing their wives’ independence.

Women’s nomenclature has been a point of contention for centuries — and the practice of keeping one’s own isn’t necessarily new. As far back as the 1600s in the Netherlands, married women were keeping their names — and still are today. In 1789, France passed a law mandating that women use the name they were given at birth, no matter if they marry or not. And France isn’t alone. There’s a long list of places where women keep their birth name for life, including Italy, Greece, Korea, and Vietnam.

In America, the move to keep one’s maiden name is rooted in defiance of the law — specifically that of suffragette and abolitionist Lucy Stone. Upon marrying Henry B. Blackwell in 1855, Stone decided to keep her own name, penning a “marriage of protest” document that decried the practice as one that bestows “unnatural superiority” on the husband and demands “voluntary obedience” from the wife.

Straying from this came with a price. Detached legally from her husband, Stone was criticized by her local officials, who banned her from participating in elections in Massachusetts. But the decision to buck tradition was worth it — helping to define the women’s movement in America, and usher in an era when married women can freely keep their birth name without consequence.

It’s a battle women in Japan have yet to win — perhaps, in part, because surnames themselves there are relatively new. Unlike neighboring China, which began employing them in the fifth century B.C., the practice of a second name grew in the 19th century during the rise of imperial rule under Emperor Meiji. As a part of his efforts to modernize the country, he passed what’s known as the Meiji Civil Code of 1898. 

This Japanese civil code was an unfortunate turn of events for females. The law placed all control over a family in the hands of the man: inheritance, property, and children. A book by Mikiso Hane titled Japan: A Short History captures it this way. “The wife was placed under the absolute authority of the family head and husband. She had no legal rights,” Hane writes. “One of the provisions stated, ‘cripples and disabled persons and wives cannot undertake any legal action.’” 

Unsurprisingly, the law mandated that women take their husband’s surname. In 1947, however, this law was amended to say married couples have to take one surname — but could choose that of the woman or the man. This provision has made little difference overall. In 96 percent of marriages during the past 40 years, according to the Japan Times, couples have adopted the man’s last name. 

As women’s rights continue to expand worldwide, many view the practice as a relic of a time when women were relegated to being second-class citizens. In Quartz this week, a mother in Tokyo named Masaka Yamaura gave the issue a face, saying she felt stifled by taking her husband’s last name in 2011. While Yamaura could use her name at work, she was banned from using it on government documents.

In order to regain her birth name, the 33-year-old decided to legally divorce him — on paper only. “I felt like I had been living as a different person,” Masaka told Quartz, calling the adoption of her ex-husband’s surname “hurtful” to her identity.

It’s a sentiment that many of her peers share — and thus they have been actively trying to change the laws. In 2015, several brought a case before the Japanese Supreme Court, arguing that the law “infringed on personal dignity and the freedom to marry.” In a 10-5 decision, the law was upheld. Opponents called the shared surnames a “central pillar of the family unit” in Japan.

Justice Itsuro Terada, the judge presiding over the case, rejected the notion that it undercuts female independence, or unfairly favors the man. Instead, Terada framed it as a provision “deeply rooted” in Japanese society, one that he said — according to the Japan Times enables people to identify themselves as part of a family in the eyes of others.”

In the wake of continued failure to get the court to side with women, a new movement has arisen in which the script is flipped — specifically by one man, who is suing the government for making him change his name. The individual, Yoshihisa Aono, took his wife’s last name, Nishihata, when they married, but still goes by Aono professionally. 

The head of a tech firm, Aono has struggled to manage using both names — specifically when booking business trips. “I thought it wouldn’t cause many disadvantages, because I believed it was a common thing [for women] to use pre-marriage names at the workplace,” Aono told a media organization in Tokyo. “But it turned out to be hard. … I’ve been feeling a lot of stress.”

In the suit, which Aono filed with three other plaintiffs, he says that the law is unconstitutional and that spouses should be able to legally use whatever name they like. Along with the others — who all have their own experiences taking a spouse’s name — he’s asking for nearly $20,000 for the “psychological damage” that the practice has caused.

“This lawsuit was led by the feelings of people struggling for a few decades for being forced to change their original names piling up,” Aono told local news in Japan. “For the lawsuit, there has been also a big impact on the internet. I want to expand the momentum to form public opinions.”

Included in the lawsuit is the exception for foreigners (Japanese who marry foreigners don’t have to have the same surname), which the plaintiffs call “discriminatory.” It’s unclear when — and if — the case will go to trial, but if it does it will be a unique attempt to bring down what many in Japan view as an archaic device for female oppression. 

In that thinking, Japanese are certainly not alone. And if men like Aono are able to get the law overturned, it will be a momentous win for women who have long viewed it as unjust. In a now seminal piece arguing just that for the Guardian in 2011, Jill Filipovic put it this way: “When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband’s, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world,” she writes. “It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself.”

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:

Follow us on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter for nonstop inspiration delivered fresh to your feed, every day.