Can Japan’s married women finally keep maiden names after business lobby’s push for new law?

A campaign by women in Japan to obtain legal equality for their identities has received a boost after the head of the nation’s largest business lobby expressed support for a change in the law that would allow women to keep their maiden names after marriage.

Campaigners say Japan is the only country in the world that obliges married couples to have the same surname, and unsurprisingly, the man’s family name is overwhelmingly the one chosen. Activists say it is a patriarchal remnant of the legal system held in place by conservative male politicians.

But the control exercised by those men is coming to an end, activists say, pointing out that if the head of the influential Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) has come around to the idea of women keeping their maiden names, it is only a matter of time before the traditionalists relent.

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Traditionalists say allowing a woman to retain her maiden name would undermine the family unit. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/TNS

Keidanren chairman Masakazu Tokura on Tuesday expressed his position, which has been the subject of intense debate for nearly 20 years, telling a press conference: “I personally think it should be done. I want it to be implemented as a top priority to support women’s working styles.”

Keidanren has announced it is drawing up a paper to recommend that the law be amended to allow for different surnames, and that it would be submitted to the government later this year.

Tokura also said he was surprised at why the question “has been left hanging for so long”, after a Justice Ministry panel recommended in 1996 that the Civil Code be amended to allow for separate surnames.

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The panel’s recommendations did not go further, as conservative members of the Diet indicated they would fight it because it would undermine the cohesion of the family unit and weaken traditional values.

“These people have always rejected efforts to change the law and allow equality because they are traditionalists and believe that a unified name is important to consolidating the idea of the family,” said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

“They overlook just how inconvenient the law is for so many women,” she told This Week in Asia, pointing to the need to transfer bank, passport and countless other documents over to a new name.

“But if Keidanren is behind the idea, then I believe a majority in the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will finally listen,” she said.

“There are still a lot of conservatives in the Diet and I expect there will be resistance to change, so I would describe myself as sceptically optimistic.”

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A couple in traditional Japanese attire. The issue of women in Japan holding on to their maiden names has been the subject of intense debate for nearly 20 years. Photo: Shutterstock

An editorial in the Mainichi newspaper on February 12 called on the government to “summon political courage” to change the law, pointing out that Keidanren is claiming that the issue is harming the nation’s business.

The organisation has received complaints from foreign firms that using a professional name that is different from a legal name has caused problems ranging from women being unable to enter public facilities abroad to being refused accommodation at hotels. Contracts have also been rejected as the signature is not the same as the passport name.

“But the issue extends beyond work and daily life,” the paper said.

“One’s name is integral to their identity. Many feel they have lost a part of themselves, as if their lifetime of achievements has been denied or erased by changing their surname.”

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Studies suggest the public supports the change, with a 2022 survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research showing that 61 per cent of people were in favour of allowing married couples to have different surnames. Among companies, 84 per cent said people should be able to keep the names they had at birth, according to a study by the Institute of Labour Administration.

An increasing number of women are unofficially switching back to using their former family names, “causing companies enormous confusion”, said Sumie Kawakami, a lecturer at Yamanashi Gakuin University who focuses on women and gender issues.

“First, companies need to accommodate women’s need to get paid to an account that’s not in their registered names as Japanese banks normally require women to change their names after marriage,” she said.

“There have been many reported cases in which women’s IDs to conferences get revoked when they go on business trips overseas.

“It’s also harder for women to manage their copyrights or patents if they change their names. And all this makes it difficult for companies to understand their employees’ work history,” she added.

“The issue becomes especially complicated when women, using their maiden names for business, hold high-profile positions in companies.”

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And Kawakami knows of the potential problems from her own experiences.

“I went through the humiliation of changing my name once when I got married and then, for a second time, when I got divorced. Each time, I had to change all my IDs, bank accounts and even my child’s koseki (family register),” she said.

On one occasion, while travelling to the US, immigration officials demanded that she provide evidence of her relationship to her daughter.

“Stories and papers I wrote under my ex-husband’s surname are not credited as my work,” she added.

“I wouldn’t have to go through such humiliation if I had not changed my name. Men do not need to undergo that sort of scrutiny.”

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