• World
  • Japan

Japanese Couples Sue Government Over Controversial Surname Law

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Six couples sued the Japanese government over a law that requires married spouses to have the same surname, the latest legal challenge against a century-old custom that many argue perpetuates inequality, as well as personal and practical harm.

Ten plaintiffs — including legal and common law couples — filed suit on Friday in a Tokyo district court and one couple in Sapporo, coinciding with International Women’s Day to draw attention to the fact that the practice disproportionately affects women. If the Supreme Court rules that the law is unconstitutional it will go on to be reviewed in parliament.

Read More: How American Women Fought to Keep Their Maiden Names After Marriage

Previous legal challenges, including one in 2021, were dismissed by the top court, but calls for change have grown louder as awareness grows about the professional setbacks that women suffer. That’s giving the lawyers and plaintiffs behind the current lawsuit a confidence boost.

“More and more male managers are in favor of a system where married couples can have a choice,” said Makiko Terahara, the lawyer leading the case who worked on two similar lawsuits in the past. “Third time will be the charm.”

Japan’s powerful business lobby group Keidanren, known for its conservative stance, expressed support last month when Chairman Masakazu Tokura said at a news conference, “I personally think we should introduce a separate surname system.” Keidanren plans to submit a recommendation letter to the government as early as the first half of this year on the issue. 

The single-surname system dates back to 1898 when Japan adopted laws to formalize its patriarchal family system. Technically, a husband may adopt his wife’s surname, but in practice, it’s usually the wife who changes her name. With an increasing number of women in careers, those who continue to use their own names at work experience hassles in their day to day lives caused by the discrepancy between their legal and business names.

The name requirement also causes serious personal difficulties. Megumi Ueda, a plaintiff who works in international development, chose not to get legally married to keep her identity, but at the cost of her partner having parental rights to their child as Japan does not allow joint custody. She said she lives in fear that if she dies it will take time for custody to be transferred.

“I think you really need a new system to make sure everyone can be happier getting married,” she said.

Read More: Why Women in Asia Are Having Fewer Babies

While surveys show broad societal support for amending the law, Japan’s conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party is a key obstacle to change, said Machiko Osawa, a labor economist at Japan Women’s University. The party’s platform supports maintaining traditional family values. 

“Some say having different names would diminish family unity, but in our family that’s never been a concern,” plaintiff Yukio Koike told reporters in front of the Tokyo court before filing the suit. Koike said he and his partner have married and divorced each time they had their three children so they could have the same surname as their father. “Instead, many people would be happier if they were allowed to choose their own surname.”

However, even the LDP has been cognizant of growing support for changing the law and adjusted its position over time. In 2019 the government allowed people to list both their own and married names on some identification documents. 

“It’s clear that political attempts to promote the use of business names are not working,” said Shuhei Ninomiya, an emeritus professor who specializes in family law at Ritsumeikan University.

For Ueda, changing the law is something she believes must end with her generation after decades of waiting. 

“When I first became interested in this topic I was in junior high, and I thought the law would change by the time I grew up,” she said. “But now I’m in my 40s and nothing has. We can’t keep passing this on to the younger generation.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com