Japanese surnames: a call for change

NHK -- Apr 18
People in Japan are questioning the social norm of married couples adopting the same surname.

The mandatory system was introduced 120 years ago, but the willingness to comply is far from universal any more. Many women want to choose, rather than be forced into a change that can be associated with a loss of identity.

Article 750 of Japan’s Civil Code states that a husband and wife must have the same family name upon marriage. That means one spouse is legally required to change theirs – and it’s almost always the woman. Different surnames are only allowed for international marriages.

A 2016 Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare survey found that among more than 600,000 marriages, just 4 percent of men took their wife’s surname. The overwhelming expectation is for women to abandon their birthnames.

The current law stems from a tradition established during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). But a growing number of people say the legislation is outdated, and out of step with the social changes that have occurred since then.

“Some people are happy to change their surname because they see it as marking a new stage in life. But there is also a large portion of people who feel it is unequal. I feel that it amounts to social death,” says Ida Naho, the director of an organization pushing for the option of dual surnames.

Naho is standing up against the long-standing law after going through the complicated and exasperating process of changing her surname for two marriages. Since 2018, she has been lobbying lawmakers.

“I went through more than 100 bureaucratic processes with various institutions, including bank accounts, passport and credit cards to change my family name. I felt like I was losing my dignity and sense of identity,” she explains. “I think it’s unfair that we have to choose one surname for a family. It’s a personal right to be able to keep or change our birthname.”

Naho says many women are disadvantaged and inconvenienced under the current system. She also claims that it can be the source of privacy violations, with name changes reflecting personal events such as divorce or re-marriage.

Many people in Japan believe it’s time for a rethink. An online survey conducted last year by Naho’s lobby group and Waseda University Professor Tanamura Masayuki found 70.6 percent of 7,000 respondents said they didn’t mind if married couples used different surnames. Just 14.4 percent supported the status quo.

While the issue is often regarded as a matter for women, Tanamura maintains it impacts men as well. He says 2.4 percent of male respondents in their 20s had given up on marriage because they could not have a different surname to their partner.