TOKYO, Japan – A group of Japanese citizens filed a lawsuit Monday challenging a civil law that effectively stops women from keeping their surnames when they marry.
The 113-year-old law requires married couples to choose just one surname for the man and woman to share, and custom means it’s usually the man’s.
The lawsuit alleging that this violates constitutional equality is drawing attention to the rights of women in a country where they are underrepresented in corporate, academic and political ranks and still expected to do most of the homemaking and childrearing.
The five plaintiffs – four women and the partner of one of them – are seeking a total of 6 million yen ($70,000) in damages from the government for their distress and demanding that local government offices accept marriage certificates that list their separate surnames. They and their supporters say the case is the first lawsuit to challenge the surname requirement in Japan’s civil code.
The case also presents a challenge to Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s struggling government and his party, which had promised to craft legislation designed to allow couples to keep separate surnames. When they came to power in 2009, the Democrats did work on legislation, but that effort has stalled in the face of opposition by conservatives in and outside the party. Meanwhile, the government now faces pressing issues including the economy, tax and social security reforms.
Kyoko Tsukamoto, a 75-year-old retired teacher from northern Toyama, said she has waited for more than 50 years for a change in the law, organizing petitions and lobbying lawmakers in Parliament. Now, she says she is losing patience. By tradition, she had to use her husband’s surname Kojima on their marriage certificate, which means she must also use it on any other legal documents. She can use her maiden name only for private purposes.
“I don’t have much time left,” Tsukamoto said. “I want to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto.”
Japan is the only one of the Group of Eight industrialized nations that requires married couples to have the same family name. Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea also allow married women to have different surnames from their husbands’.
“For those who seek to keep separate surnames, the forcible use of one surname between couples is a serious human rights violation,” said Yoko Sakamoto, a civil activist who supports the legal action.
A growing number of Japanese women, including those who have advanced in corporate and academic ranks, want the same right. Many already use their maiden names as aliases at work.
Another plaintiff is Emie Kayama, a freelance writer who married in 2000. After repeated inconveniences, her and her husband submitted a divorce so she could legally use her maiden name. The couple are still together and plaintiffs in the case.
“We all should have a right to decide whether to get married or change our names,” she wrote in a statement. “There should be an option to get married without forcing anyone to drop his or her surname.”
Only in rare cases in Japan does a couple use the wife’s surname, for instance if she is an only child and there is pressure to carry on the family name, or if it benefits them financially.
In 2009, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women urged Tokyo to “take immediate action to amend the Civil Code” and drop the one-surname requirement, calling the provision “discriminatory.”