Weekend Tangent: Elderly J activists sue GOJ to allow different last names after marriage


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Hi Blog.  As a Weekend Tangent, let me direct your attention to an upcoming lawsuit (Japanese do sue too, as activists and awareness-raisers) regarding two issues that are dear to Debito.org:  1) issues of self-determination of personal identity, and 2) the evils of the Koseki system, which not only separate parent from child post-divorce, but also make a person’s name and family relationships and entitlements the domain of The State.  Other people find this objectionable too — enough to brave all the social opprobrium towards lawsuits in this society.  Good luck to them.  I hope they can stay alive long enough to outlast the slow machinations of the Japanese judiciary.  Arudou Debito


Japan government to face first suit on surnames
Reuters, Tuesday, January 11 2011, By Yoko Kubota, courtesy SR


After nearly fifty years of persevering with a life under her husband’s surname, 75-year-old Kyoko Tsukamoto is taking the Japanese government to court so that she can at least bear her own name when she dies.

“My husband and I still love each other, but this and the issue of Tsukamoto are different,” she said.

The former teacher uses her maiden name, but due to Japanese civil law requirements she had to take her husband’s name when she married to make the union legal.

But debate over the surname issue, long a sore point with some women, has heated up as more women stay in jobs after marriage and juggle two names — their maiden name at work and their registered name on legal documents.

“I thought that I would get used to my husband’s name, but I could not, and a sense of loss grew inside me,” Tsukamoto said.

“Now I am 75 and I was shocked to realise that I can’t do things anymore that I used to be able to do last year. That’s when I thought that I am Kyoko Tsukamoto and I want to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto.”

Tsukamoto is one of five people planning to file a lawsuit against the government and local authorities as early as February, saying the civil code that requires married couples to register under the same surname violates equal rights among married couples, as well as personal rights.

Men are allowed to take their spouses’ name, but it is rare.

The group will seek compensation for what it says is the legislature’s failure to enact change, the first such case to be debated in open court in Japan, the only country in the Group of Eight major industrialised nations with such a surname rule.

Hopes grew that the government would submit a bill to amend the civil code after the Democratic Party of Japan, which has advocated letting married couples keep separate names if they wish, took power in 2009. But opposition from a coalition ally caused the plan to stall.

“There were expectations that it could be enacted but unfortunately this did not take place. They do not want to wait any longer,” said Fujiko Sakakibara, lead lawyer for the group.


The rule is tied to Japan’s traditional concept of the family, which in the past ensured that property, businesses, and surnames were passed on to men within the family unit.

Some say it is outdated. In certain cases, couples repeat marriages and divorces between each other to avoid having to register their children as out of wedlock births, partly because the civil code limits inheritance rights for such children.

Tsukamoto, with her husband since 1960, is going through her second marriage with him after divorcing once in 1965 to get her maiden name back. They re-married when they had their third child but her husband has rejected requests for a second divorce.

Those against change say it’s a matter of family unity and are wary of the impact on children’s identities. They also warn of a possible increase in divorce.

Tsukamoto began studying women’s issues at the age of 63, after she was freed of duties to nurse her parents. She has since taken up an activist’s role.

“Others were getting by well in society and I have thought that perhaps I was stupid to insist on this … Now things are changing in a good direction, unimaginable in 1960,” she said.


Japanese marital surname law faces legal challenge
A lawsuit against the government is being launched by five people who claim their constitutional rights are being violated
Justin McCurry in Tokyo, courtesy of the author’s Twitter feed
guardian.co.uk Tuesday 11 January 2011


Five people in Japan are poised to launch an unprecedented lawsuit against the government, claiming that a civil law forcing them to choose a single surname after marriage violates their constitutional rights.

If they succeed, married men and women will for the first time be able to retain their own surnames, dealing a blow to one of the few remaining legal obstacles to gender equality.

In the vast majority of cases, women are required to relinquish their maiden name after marriage, although a small number of men take their wife’s name.

Critics say the time has come to modernise the law in Japan, the only G8 nation with laws governing marital surnames.

The plaintiffs argue that the civil code’s requirement that a single surname be chosen contradicts articles of the constitution guaranteeing individual liberty and equal rights to husband and wife. The five are also seeking ¥1m (£7,727) each in compensation from the government.

Kyoko Tsukamoto, who changed her maiden name in the family registry after marrying in 1960 but retained it in daily life, said the law had contributed to a “strong loss of self” and caused psychological damage.

“My husband and I still love each other, but this and the issue of Tsukamoto are different,” said the 75-year-old former teacher. “I thought I would get used to my husband’s name, but I couldn’t. I felt a strong sense of loss growing inside me.”

Opposition from conservative politicians delayed previous attempts to change the law. In 1996 the justice ministry devised an amendment that would give married women the right to retain their maiden names, but the move was blocked by MPs who said it would undermine the family unit.

The current government, led by the centre-left Democratic party, supports a change in the law but has yet to act amid opposition from a minor coalition ally.

“There were expectations that it could be enacted, but unfortunately this did not happen. They do not want to wait any longer,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Fujiko Sakakibara.

The law has forced some couples to take drastic action. Tsukamoto and her husband divorced in 1965 so that she could regain her maiden name, but remarried when she became pregnant because civil law can impinge on the inheritance rights of children born out of wedlock.

Critics say the civil code, enacted in 1896 and amended by the US occupation forces after the second world war, ignores dramatic postwar changes to the role of women in the home and workplace.

The movement for change gathered pace in the 1980s when more women entered the workplace. Many complained that changing their names after marriage was detrimental to their career prospects and affected relationships with colleagues.

Yet the Japanese are divided over the issue: in a 2009 survey 49% said they supported a change in the law, while 48% were opposed.

Women still have to use their registered surnames on official documents such as passports and health insurance cards.

Many companies allow married women to retain their maiden names at work, but for Tsukamoto, who married in 1960, unofficial acceptance is not enough.

“Now I am 75, and I was shocked to realise that I can no longer do the things I was able to do even last year,” she said. “That’s when I thought, I am Kyoko Tsukamoto … and I want to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto.”


Historical article on the issue (2004) showing how little the debate has changed in nearly a decade:

The Japan Times, Sunday, March 14, 2004, courtesy Justin McCurry
The twisted terminology in Japan’s marriage system

…Marriage as a legal contract allows the state to regulate what goes on in the bedroom. This is basically the argument put forth by Sumiko Tanaka and Noboru Fukukita, a Japanese couple who live together without the state’s blessing and who have an 18-year-old daughter. Because Tanaka and Fukukita are not married, their daughter’s out-of-wedlock status was indicated in both their residence certificate (juminhyo) and family register (koseki). They have been fighting to have such designations changed since 1988, and while they’ve lost lawsuits in court, their efforts have moved the government to change these discriminatory terms. Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa announced last week that children born out-of-wedlock would be designated in family registers in the same way as children born to married couples, though nothing has really changed. Anyone who reads the family register will be able to tell if a child is born in or out of wedlock. The ministry has made the terms less discriminatory, but the register, which codifies parent-child relationships, is unchanged.

Because the United States sees itself as part of a Judeo-Christian heritage, it can couch the marriage debate in moral terms, even if it’s the authorities who decide who can marry. In Japan, the state is the only arbiter and the koseki the instrument of that arbitration. Immorality, therefore, is defined by the government, and has been since the Meiji Period, when the koseki was established for the purposes of census and tax collecting.

Many Japanese couples, therefore, bridle at the idea that they need the state’s permission to cohabit and have children. Some people may think that the controversy over separate names (bessei) is based on the same thing, but it isn’t. In 1996, the Justice Ministry proposed revisions to the Civil Code that would allow married partners to retain separate surnames. As it stands, a married couple must decide on one name (98 percent take the husband’s).

Conservative politicians have repeatedly shot down any effort to allow separate surnames, saying that bessei undermines the integrity of the family, even though it’s clear that the vast majority of Japanese couples will opt for one name even if they can have separate ones.

The irony is that more couples would get married if they were allowed separate names…

Rest of the article at:

5 comments on “Weekend Tangent: Elderly J activists sue GOJ to allow different last names after marriage

  • Best of luck to her. I wonder how activism will work when the opposing group can’t use excuses like “she just doesn’t understand Japanese culture” or “it is a language barrier”. I am very curious to see what will befall her.

    — I anticipate that antagonists will brand her a radical feminist, threatening the very foundation of the venerable institution that is The Japanese Family, and hope that she shuffles off her mortal coil without further ado.

    That’s putting it nicely, of course.

  • Why is Japan still stuck [snip] on this one? My husband and I have separate names, so I have a different name to my kids, but Japanese institutions find this incredibly difficult to process. Whenever we rented a new apartment we’d be asked whether we were actually married. In doctor’s offices they insist on calling me by my husband’s last name (which I have never used) and its always fun to see how people address the nengajo every year. I have a couple of friends married to Japanese men, and a common complaint from them was that even mail addressed correctly to them at their home address would be returned to sender if it was not addressed with the husband’s surname!!

  • The Minshutō isn’t living up to the expectations here.

    But I’m even more shocked people oppose the change to the law, when you can still choose same surname/different surname on an individual basis.

    Why would conservatives want to forbid me having a different family name than my wife if they can carry on with business as usual???

    — Because some people are allergic to change of any sort.

  • I took my husband’s name gladly and would have even if we weren’t in Japan and he wasn’t Japanese… but that’s MY choice. I think other people should have the right to make their own choices too, even if it’s not the same choice that I would make, even if it’s not the choice the majority would make. I can’t think of a single reason, in this day and age where maternity and paternity can be easily looked up on a computer system if there is ever a legal question, that people should not have the freedom to choose for themselves what is right for their family.

    While they’re at it, why not make a law that allows children with more than two names to be called only by the name their friends and family actually USE for things like the daily role call at school?

    — Because a name is the property of The State, not the individual?


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