Japan Supreme Court Rules the Law on Surnames of Married Couples to be Constitutional

Japan Supreme Court Rules the Law on Surnames of Married Couples to be Constitutional
Photo Credit: Yoshihide HANAKI@Flickr CC BY SA 2.0
What you need to know

Although the law does not request wives to take their husbands' surnames, but since the Japanese society is deeply influenced by a male-dominant mindset, 96% of married women have given up their maiden names after getting married.

Listen
powered by Cyberon

The News Lens international edition is sponsored by Tutor A B C

Two laws in Japan that date back to 1896 state that women cannot remarry within six months after getting divorced, and married couples have to share the same surname. Although the law does not request wives to take their husbands’ surnames, but since the Japanese society is deeply influenced by a male-dominant mindset, 96% of married women have given up their maiden names after getting married.

In protest against the law regulating surnames of married couples, five Japanese women took the government to court, claiming the relevant laws to be unconstitutional and asked the Japanese government for a compensation of JPY¥6 million (approximately US$ 50 thousand) for their inconvenience.

On December 16, the Supreme Court ruled that the six-month marriage ban was unconstitutional and asked the Japanese government to amend the law. However, the law will still remain valid if it’s amended with a shorter waiting period of 100 days after getting divorced.

As for the law regarding the surnames of married couples, the judge said that since women can still choose to use their maiden names after marriage, the law was upheld as constitutional.

Conservatives worry that the abolishment of current laws will destabilize the foundations of traditional Japanese families

The conservative ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, says that changing the existing system will destabilize the foundations of traditional Japanese families. Some opponents argue that the best way to maintain a family is through surnames, and they worry that if a married couple has different surnames it will endanger social stability.

To retain their maiden names, some women choose not to marry. However, this option has its drawbacks, such as children’s right to education, inheritance issues and so on. Hence, many women are eventually forced to give in. They still use their maiden names in the workplace, but use their husbands’ surnames on governmental documents.

The supporting and opposing sides each account for 50% in the surname issue

According to Keizai Shimbun’s opinion poll, 77% of career women support the proposal. NHK’s poll results show that 46% of the respondents believe that the couples should be allowed to choose their own surnames, while the remaining respondents think the couples should have the same surname.

Currently, Japan is the only country that regulates a married couple to have the same surname. For example, Germany once requested wives to take their husbands’ surnames, but early in the 1991, the German Federal Court ruled the law to be unconstitutional, and officially amended the law allowing married couples to have different surnames in 1993.

Thailand also amended the law in 2005 giving married couples the freedom to choose their own surnames, but children must take their father’s surname.

Six-month remarriage ban

ATP reports, the half-year remarriage ban is linked to complex rules over the timing of a child’s birth after divorce. It was designed to determine whether a child belonged to the ex-husband or the new spouse’s family in an era before DNA testing. However, this law is now considered to be outdated.

Mother and activist Masae Ido knows firsthand the implications of the half-year ban on remarriage. She vividly recalls her frustration after the birth of a child with her second husband.

A municipal official said her ex-husband must be registered as the father of her baby (who, under the rules, was born too soon after they divorced) even though he was not biologically related to the child.

A long and difficult split left Ido feeling unable to ask the former husband to publicly acknowledge the child as not his, so she had to sue her new spouse in a judicial tango to fix the paternity puzzle. “My child was finally registered after this bizarre legal procedure," said Ido, now an activist helping those in similar situations.

The situation in Japan has left some people, possibly tens of thousands, in a state of legal limbo because they end up unregistered in either family, which can make it tough to get a permanent job or receive social services.

Translated and compiled by Vic Chiang
Edited by Olivia Yang

Sources: