Here's a picture of my wife, Sugawara Ayako, taken in front of Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany, summer 1996. We met in the USA at a Christmas party in 1984, and tied the knot in 1989. My constant advisor and confidante, she is the main reason why my Japanese language skills have come up to speed, and why I am so firmly anchored into this society.

We have separate last names in Japan, but both take the surname "Aldwinckle" in the US. This is due to a quirk in Japanese law. Japanese citizens are not allowed to take middle names (whereas in America, she goes by Ayako "Sugawara" Aldwinckle), so she has to choose--either "Sugawara Ayako" or "Arudouinkuru Ayako" (which is the way my surname comes out in Japanese)--for all official documents here.

This made life interesting. For the first three years of our marriage, she took the latter, clumsy, American last name because I'd insisted--it would make me feel more married. But whenever Aya had to reregister her name in the Japanese bureaucracy (and that was often--we were moving all the time in our early years together), she had to wait for literally hours because the Ward office computers wouldn't take a surname as long as mine. And whenever she gave her name over the phone or in public, people would either ask her, "What was the name of that drinking establishment (sunakku) again?", or "Can you speak Japanese?"

She finally got miffed enough to ask me to change her name back. Hearing of her tribulations, I said sure. But as Japan's bureaucracy is famously intransigent, they required that she go through a lawyer for an official change, and even then, she was at the mercy of the courts (who don't approve of fuufu bessei--married people with different last names).

Fortunately, she got a woman lawyer surnamed, of all things, "Sugawara", and presto! Problem solved--although the fact that I am not legally resident in Japan (believe it or not, no foreigner is--click here to read more about that) ironically helped. Legally , she has no husband that she must conform her name with.

As an epilogue, let me add: if I someday take Japanese citizenship, that situation will of course change, and we will face another name conundrum. I would have to change my name to a Japanese one. Fine. I would take "Arudou Debito" (有道 出人), which comes closest to my roots and nature. However, since I would now be a Japanese citizen, Aya would have to change her last name to mine. She hates the sound of "Arudou", and would refuse to take it. Sigh.

When will Japan's bureaucracy unbutton its top button and let people do more with their identities?

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