Japan Court Says Married Couples Have No Right to Separate Names

  • Plaintiffs sought to overturn law in place since 19th century
  • Decision comes as Abe seeks to bring more women into workplace

Japan’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a law forcing couples to have the same name after marriage is not a breach of the constitution, lawyers for the plaintiffs said, upholding a system in place since the 19th century.

Five plaintiffs had said the current law breaches equal rights guaranteed under the constitution, because in most cases Japanese women take their husband’s name to comply with the legal requirement. They had sought compensation for personal distress and difficulties at work they say were caused by being forced to change their names, according to court documents published on a website for supporters.

The ruling is the culmination of a decades-old battle and comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government seeks to entice more women into the workforce to bolster the economy as Japan’s population ages and shrinks. While Abe has vowed to create a society where "women can shine" in all walks of life, conservatives in his party argue allowing separate names would lead to the breakdown of family ties.

Some recent polls show a majority of the public are in favor of the change. A survey published by the conservative Sankei newspaper this week found 51 percent of respondents agreed the law should allow couples to keep their names, while 42 percent said they were opposed. The percentage in favor of change was higher among younger age groups, with a majority of those over 60 still against it, the paper said.

Like ‘Funeral’

Mari Miura, a professor of gender and politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University said the courtroom was "like a funeral" after the unexpected verdict was handed down.

"The court’s view was that the system is socially accepted due to the custom of couples having the same name," said Miura, who was at the ruling. "The majority of the judges were thinking from the perspective of the state, not from a human-rights perspective."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo that there were various opinions on the system among the public, and the government would "respond cautiously based on the national debate."

‘Paper Divorce’

The ruling was reached by majority. Five judges said the current law was in breach of the constitution and 10 said it wasn’t, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs Fujiko Sakakibara told journalists and supporters. The verdict included the view that having all members of a family unit take the same name is a "logical" practice, Sakakibara said.

"I had e-mails from overseas about this," said Minako Yoshii, one of the plaintiffs. "First of all I would like to tell them I’m sorry Japan is still like this. I’m embarrassed."

Fellow plaintiff Kaori Oguni said the ruling will bring suffering to those who want to marry in the future. "I have a six-year-old daughter," she said. "I am wondering how I can explain this to her when I go home tonight."

Under the existing law, some Japanese men take their wife’s name on marriage, particularly in cases where the woman has no brothers to inherit the family name. Foreigners are also not obliged to change their names if they marry Japanese citizens.
Many Japanese women, including Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, continue to use their maiden name at work, while taking their husband’s name for legal purposes. Other couples opt out of a formal marriage to avoid changing their name, or undergo a "paper divorce" after having children, while remaining together.

In a separate case Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that a law banning women from re-marrying for six months after a divorce was against the constitution. The court suggested that a 100-day ban would be reasonable, NHK reported.

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