Mari Inoue is a 34-year-old computer science teacher in Tokyo. She got engaged to her boyfriend Kotaro Usui three years ago. A marriage, they say, is out of the question.
It is not the pandemic that is preventing them, but an archaic Japanese law that forces married couples to adopt the same last name.
Theoretically, either partner could drop their last name. In practice, it is almost always the woman who loses hers: a study found that they are the ones who change it 96% of the time.
“I find this very unfair,” Ms. Inoue said. “We should have a choice (to keep both).”
Her fiancé agrees. He considered becoming an Inoue but some parents were unhappy. “I don’t want to make any family sad,” Mr. Usui said. “We would like to be able to choose to change or keep his name.”
Japan is among the few advanced economies to prevent couples from having separate surnames after marriage – thanks to a law that explicitly discriminates against women, according to a United Nations committee.
Six years ago, two high-profile lawsuits aimed at changing the rules failed. But the reform movement – joined by Ms. Inoue and Mr. Usui – has only grown.
A secular battle
Family names have long been contested territory.
In England, a woman’s desire to keep her maiden name was linked to an unseemly “ambition” as early as 1605, wrote Dr Sophie Coulombeau.
Those who challenged the patriarchal practice met with angry resistance, with some eventually being granted the right to use their names through historic trials starting in the late 1800s.
A similar battle was fought by suffragists in the United States. It wasn’t until 1972 that a series of court rulings confirmed that women could use their last names as they wished.
Over 40 years later, many in Japan were ready for their own defining moment.
Kaori Oguni was one of five plaintiffs who took the government to court, arguing that the Family Names Act was unconstitutional and violated human rights.
But in 2015, the Supreme Court of Japan ruled that it was reasonable to use a surname for a family, upholding the rule of the 19th century.
“It was like an arrogant teacher was scolding us,” Ms. Oguni said, still using her birth name informally. “I hoped the court would respect individual rights.”
Instead, the judge said it was Parliament that had to decide whether or not to pass new legislation.
The political sphere, like most workplaces in Japan, is dominated by men. Entrenched cultural expectations view childcare and housework as women’s work, even if they are employed outside the home. Sexism is rife.
Unsurprisingly, the country has a poor gender equality record, ranking 121st out of 153 countries in the latest World Economic Forum report.
The government says it wants more women into a shrinking workforce, but the gender gap appears to be widening – Japan has fallen 11 places from the previous equality survey.
‘A social death’
Since 2018, Naho Ida, a public relations professional in Tokyo, has taken on the challenge of changing her mind in parliament, pressuring MPs to support separate surnames through her campaign group Chinjyo. Action.
For Naho, who prefers to use her first name over the second reference, the naming convention “feels like proof of (female) subordination”.
Ida is actually the name of her ex-husband. When they got married in the 1990s, he told her he was too ashamed to take her last name. His parents and his agreed that the change was up to him. “I felt overwhelmed by my new last name,” she said.
The 45-year-old has resigned herself to using Ida professionally, having published under her for decades, as remarriage forced her to have an unwanted legal third last name.
“Some people are happy (to change), but I think it’s a social death,” she told the BBC.
Signs of change
Yoshihide Suga’s advent as Japan’s new prime minister last year briefly raised hope among activists like Naho, as he openly supported surname reform.
But in December, the government reneged on its women’s empowerment goals with a watered-down gender equality plan that left out the surname issue.
It “risks destroying the social structure based on family units”, warned Sanae Takaichi, former minister at the time.
Just last week, Japan’s new Minister for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, Tamayo Marukawa, spoke out against a legal change allowing women to keep their birth names.
For many “a woman who does not want to take her husband’s name disrupts much more than a nuclear family, she disrupts the whole idea of family,” said Linda White, professor of Japanese studies at Middlebury College in the United States. .
She explained how Japan’s traditional koseki (family registry) system, based on single-name households, has helped preserve patriarchal control everywhere, from government to large corporations.
Japanese society itself seems open to change. Recent polls suggest a majority favor for married couples to keep last names separate.
A survey conducted in October by Chinjyo Action and Waseda University showed 71% were in favor of people having a choice.
In this changing landscape, nine new legal challenges are underway. Unlike last time, when all but one of the plaintiffs were women, almost all of the trials also involve a man.
This appears to be a conscious strategy in a movement where many personalities are leading the debate in terms of human rights rather than women’s rights or feminism.
“It’s more a question of individual identity and freedom” than a feminist question, said senior lawyer Fujiko Sakakibara, 67. “We wanted to show that it affects both men and women.”
Of the 18 complainants now locked in family name disputes, half are men. One is a prominent CEO of a Tokyo-based software company who legally took his wife’s last name on marriage.
Another is Seiichi Yamasaki. The retired civil servant has had a de facto relationship with his partner for 28 years as they believed it was unfair that either of them changed their names.
At 71, Mr. Yamasaki wants the next generation to have a choice while showing “that there is also a demand among the elderly”.
In December, three cases – including his – were referred to the Grand Bench of the Supreme Court, a decision lawyers view positively because it may indicate the court will deliver a new judgment on the surname rule this year.
“This male voice has made a big difference,” Naho said, acknowledging the role of male allies in ending a patriarchal norm.
What’s in a name anyway?
The impact of a name change on a career is an important driver for many women advocating for reform. The burden of changing names on dozens of official documents in paperwork-laden Japan is another.
Those who choose not to marry because of the law also cite problems in situations such as hospital care where only legally married spouses can make decisions on behalf of the other.
What it ultimately comes down to many women is identity.
Izumi Onji, an anesthesiologist from Hiroshima City, made the unconventional decision to divorce her husband to get his name back. This is called a “paper divorce” in Japan because they are still living together decades later.
“It’s me. It’s my identity, ”the 65-year-old clearly says.
Dr Onji, who also challenges the surname rule in court, knows she is part of a small minority who would in fact use a revised law.
The overwhelming majority of Japanese women, like their counterparts in the UK and US, will always give up their last name upon marriage.
As Mihiko Sato (a pseudonym), a mother of two in her late twenties, explained, adopting her husband’s last name was a “natural” decision to feel “more united” as one. family.
Many married British women might agree – nearly 90% gave up their names after marriage, a 2016 survey suggested.
That the custom of renaming has persisted is a question of surprise to some researchers at a time when gender awareness is greater and more and more women identify as feminists.
Even those who don’t say, like many in Japan, that tradition shouldn’t be used to stifle choice.
“Everyone should have the right to choose their own last name,” Ms. Sato said.