In Japan, Women Fight for the Last Word on Last Names


Like many people, Mizuho Fukushima is quite attached to her name--and wants to remain so. When she met her prospective husband, Yuichi Kaido, more than 20 years ago, giving up her surname seemed like killing an old friend.

“It just didn’t seem natural,” she said.

In another country, she could have kept her maiden name. Or both partners could have used a hyphenated name. But in Japan, law dictates that married partners share a single surname, and culture and tradition ensure that it’s the man’s name 97% of the time.

In the end, the couple registered their protest at the bureaucratic inflexibility by not getting married. Over the ensuing two decades, which included the birth of their daughter, Fukushima ratcheted up her fight, writing several books on women’s rights. Since becoming a lawmaker in 1998, she has fought for legislation to allow couples to have different last names.


Although Japanese increasingly side with Fukushima and other supporters of dual names, conservative male lawmakers within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party continue to resist changing the Civil Code. Japan is alone among major developed nations and even among such Confucian neighbors as China and South Korea in prohibiting dual surnames.

A poll last fall by the government Cabinet Office found that 65% of respondents favored letting married couples keep separate last names, a 10-percentage-point jump from 1996 and the first time supporters outweighed critics. Late last year, reformers even became hopeful for a short time when the LDP agreed after years of opposition to consider the issue.

But traditionalists have roared back, arguing that allowing two-name families will promote excessive individuality, encourage the complete dissolution of the family and even create misunderstandings at mailboxes and gravestones.

“I understand it’s inconvenient for working women to change their surnames mid-career, but we should continue the existing system to avoid confusion and to give a good example to children,” said Sanae Takaichi, an LDP lawmaker. “Dual surnames are not part of Japanese culture.”

Old System at Issue

Just look at the Scandinavian countries, where marriages break up about 20% more frequently than in Japan, said Eiko Araki, director general of the conservative Japan Women’s Society. “It’s obvious from their high divorce rates that separate surnames loosen family ties.”

At the heart of the debate is the several-centuries-old ie system, a tradition that is getting weaker, particularly in cities, but still holds a grip on parts of Japanese society. Under ie, a bride became part of the man’s house, took his name, cared for his mother and expected that her ashes would be buried in his family tomb. So complete was the loss of identity that even in cases in which wives were beaten or abused, their own families frequently dared not intervene.

“It’s as though women were property owned by the husband’s family,” said Moriho Hirooka, a law professor at Chuo University in Tokyo. “Wrapped up in this naming issue are some very old patriarchal conventions.”

As more women have entered the work force, married later and attained more prestigious jobs, the logic of this hidebound system has come under greater scrutiny, even as the mismatch between real life and tradition has produced an awkward patchwork of exceptions.

Wives are required to use their registered--that is, married--name on driver’s licenses, health insurance cards and residence permits. Ditto for passports, although maiden names can be annotated if the wife can prove she had a preexisting career that requires overseas travel.

Architects, teachers, doctors, chemists, nurses and a host of other licensed professionals must use their married name, even if their professional reputation was built using a maiden name. Lawyers, court clerks and accountants can use maiden names, as long as they also list their registered names.

Some companies allow married women to keep their maiden names; others don’t. And last year, bureaucrats were given the right to keep their names, pending action by parliament.

Although Fukushima may be among the most vocal critics of the single-surname system, many other women have fought quiet battles in the shadows.

Noriko Higuchi, a 42-year-old municipal worker in the northeastern city of Sendai, has faced social stigma and marital tension over her decision to use Higuchi, her maiden name, in all but the most official situations during her 17 years of marriage.

In fact, she says, her husband worried early on that she was on the verge of divorcing him, even as his colleagues chided him for not being able to control his wife.

“If the separate-surname law passes, I’ll rush down to the municipal counter at 8:30 a.m. on the very first day to get my maiden name back,” she said. “I miss it!”

With 97% of married couples choosing the man’s name, pressure on the 3% who defy tradition can be intense.

Makoto Yamada, a 31-year-old dentist, took his wife’s name when he married Yuko Kuji several years ago. He says it seemed like a far more interesting name than Yamada, which in Japan is akin to Jones or Smith.

People quickly registered their disapproval--including his parents, who had lived overseas and otherwise seemed quite liberal.

“With their own son, however, they were very opposed to my taking her name,” he said. “And the arguments I heard were quite irrational: You should keep your name because it’s expected of you. You should do it because your father will be embarrassed to tell your grandfather.”

Ultimately the pressure became so great, linked implicitly to his taking over the family dental practice, that the couple divorced--the only way he could legally recover the Yamada name. They remain married in all but name, he says, and the lack of legal ties has made them work harder to secure the emotional ties.

Old Guard Blocks Plan

The fight to change the law is not a new one. The idea was first floated officially in 1991, draft legislation was introduced in 1996, and the issue has been raised repeatedly by lawmakers since then.

Late last year, the favorable polls, a doubling during the last decade in the number of female lawmakers to 74, including the justice minister, and the political exit of a powerful LDP opponent over a payoff scandal seemed to suggest change was possible.

But resistance by the old guard was too great, and analysts now don’t expect a change before next year. The latest compromise under discussion would allow dual surnames but label them “exceptions.” Dual-name couples would be allowed later to switch back to a single name, but those married under a single name could not switch.

Supporters of change say opponents are mistaking cause and effect. In the last decade, Japan’s official divorce rate has doubled and its child-abuse rate is 17 times what it once was. Supporters point out that this is because of a range of economic, social and technological issues seen around the world, not the result of the policy on names.

“Decisions in Japan have long been made by old men” intent on seeing women stay at home, Fukushima said. “To me, there’s no single, stereotypical family. It’s a network of individuals who care for each other.”

For Fukushima and Kaido, it took some courage to spurn tradition. Their parents were aghast when they heard about the couple’s decision not to marry. Their daughter, now 15, was born out of wedlock, a status that can subject parents and children to often-cruel social pressures.

On the positive side, society gradually has become more accepting and they have faced very little overt discrimination.

“Fortunately, we haven’t run into too much direct prejudice,” Fukushima said. “Maybe because both my partner and I are lawyers, no one would dare.”


Rie Sasaki in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.