Japan’s supreme court has ruled that a 19th-century law forcing married couples to use the same surname – almost always that of the husband – does not violate the constitution.
The court’s ruling on Wednesday will be seen as a setback for women’s rights inJapan, just as the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, pushes for a greater role for womenin the workplace to boost economic growth.
In a minor victory, however, the country’s top court said that a second legal provision preventing women from remarrying for six months after they divorce violates the constitution’s commitment to gender equality. But the court said that a remarriage ban on women of up to 100 days was reasonable, according to Kyodo News.
The same-name ruling came in response to a lawsuit by five women who argued the requirement, as stipulated in the 1896 civil code, violates married couples’ civil rights.
While the law does not stipulate which name married couples should adopt, in practice women take their husband’s name in 96% of cases – a reflection, critics, say of Japan’s male-dominated society.
One of the plaintiffs, Kaori Oguni, said before the ruling: “By losing your surname … you’re being made light of, you’re not respected … It’s as if part of your self vanishes.”
Oguni and four other women launched their legal challenge in 2011, seeking damages of 6m yen (£33,000) for the emotional distress and practical inconvenience of having to take their husband’s name.
The attempt to have the law deemed unconstitutional encountered opposition from conservative politicians and commentators, who argued that allowing couples to have different surnames would damage the traditional family unit.
The law reflects the traditional view that marriages in Japan are unions between families, not individuals. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), when the law was introduced, it was common for a woman to leave her family to become part of her husband’s family.
“Names are the best way to bind families,” Masaomi Takanori, a constitutional scholar, told NHK public television in the run-up to the verdict. “Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order and the basis for social welfare.”
In practice, many women continue to use their maiden names at work and their legal, married surname in official documents. They include the internal affairs minister, Sanae Takaichi.
Oguni said: “If changing surnames is so easy, why don’t more men do it? The system is one that says, basically, if you’re not willing to change, you shouldn’t be getting married.”
The issue has divided public opinion. A poll by the liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 52% of respondents believed couples should have the right to choose, while 34% opposed the move. If given the option, more than 70% said they would adopt a single family name.
Wednesday’s decision means that the only option open to couples who wish to use separate surnames is not to register their marriages. People in common-law marriages, however, encounter complications in inheritance and parental rights.
While it is not directly related to the name issue, the plaintiffs were hoping that Abe’s quest to raise the profile of women in the workplace would help their cause.
Japan is thought to be one of only a few industrialised countries where it is illegal for married couples to have different surnames.
A justice ministry panel recommended in 1996 that the same-name rule be abolished and that the waiting time for remarriage be cut to 100 days, but the change met fierce opposition from conservative MPs, who condemned it as an attack on family values and social cohesion.
The UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women has also called on Japan to revise the laws.
The court’s ruling on remarrying came after a woman who divorced her violent husband said the law had caused her mental anguish by preventing her from remarrying when she wanted to.
The law bans women from remarrying until six months after divorce in case there is confusion over the paternity of children who are conceived shortly before or after the divorce. But critics argue that the law is outdated, given the accuracy of modern pregnancy and paternity testing.[Source:-The Gurdian]