Japanese couples are fighting to keep their names—and identities—distinct when they marry

Keeping our own names though.
Keeping our own names though.
Image: EPA/Kimimasa Mayama
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Masaka Yamaura, a 33-year-old mother of one in Tokyo, adopted her husband’s last name—Takahashi—after she married. But her new name never sat right with her. To return to her former self, she took a drastic step.

“I felt like I had been living as a different person. ‘Takahashi’ and ‘Yamaura’ are totally different,” Yamaura explained. After she married in 2011, she could still use her own name at the small company where she works, but at the hospital or for any government-related services, she had to call herself Takahashi, something she found “hurtful to her sense of identity.”

After putting a lot of effort into convincing her husband that it was necessary for her, they divorced in 2015. They continue to live together as a couple, but neither of their parents have been told about the divorce, she said. Like much of Japanese society, their parents are conservative and still believe that a woman should take her husband’s name after marriage.

Japanese law currently mandates that once married, both husband and wife must share the same last name. A husband can also take his wife’s family name—though that is a rare practice, and overwhelmingly it is women who change their names. Only after divorce can a woman return to using her maiden name for official purposes. In marriages between a Japanese national and a foreigner, however, the law doesn’t apply.

Yamaura’s experience is an unusual one, but is also reflective of a desire among an increasing number of (paywall) Japanese women to assert their independence in their marriage through the act of keeping their own name. Now, more than a century after the law was enacted, a new wave of opposition to the practice is stirring.

Yoshihisa Aono, president of software firm Cybozu—a company that has in recent years tried to build an image of itself as a champion of workplace reform—is among the few men who officially adopted his wife’s family name, Nishihata, after marriage, though in business he continues to use his own name. He and three other plaintiffs filed a suit in January in a Tokyo court, seeking damages for what they called “psychological damage” for being forced to use their spouse’s names. They also said that by excluding Japanese married to foreigners from that law, the law is discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.

Another reason for keeping one’s own name cited in the suit is that the bureaucratic process of making the change is extremely costly—Aono, shown above, said he spent ¥3 million ($28,200) to change his name (link in Japanese) on his shares when he married.

In January, a newly appointed female judge on Japan’s Supreme Court publicly said that she has continued to use her maiden name after marriage when handing down judgments. Yuko Miyazaki, 66, is the first justice to use the rule since it was recently changed—lawyers are allowed to use their pre-marriage names for legal complaints and other documents, but judges have only been allowed to do so since September. Miyazaki said that one source of motivation for her to use her maiden name professionally was because her mentor at university found that once she took her husband’s surname, papers she wrote under her pre-marriage name were not being acknowledged as her research.

Despite the recent push to change Japan’s law on last names, Yamaura said she is “quite pessimistic” about the prospect for real change. While support in Japan is growing for the law to be changed, it’s still far from a majority view. A study released this month by Japan’s cabinet office (link in Japanese) showed that 42.5% of respondents aged 18 and above supported a revision to the law to allow married couples to keep their own names, up 7 percentage points from 2012. Those who were against it declined by the same margin to 29.3%. But the country remains under the firm control of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, and the justice ministry has said (link in Japanese) that the levels of support for the change don’t warrant moving quickly to amend the law.

A previous challenge to the 19th-century provision, brought by five women on the grounds of gender discrimination the same year Yamaura married, ended in defeat the year she divorced. Japan’s top court ruled then that the family-name law would be upheld as it did not harm ”individual dignity and equality between men and women,” and because maiden names can still be used informally.

Yamamura however, strongly disagrees that there’s any semblance of gender equality in how the law plays out: “Through my research into changing names, I discovered that men and women have different rights in Japan. I want to voice my opinion, I want to protest, even if it means bearing serious inconveniences.” And even though men are allowed to take their wives’ names in Japan, in reality those who do so are seen “pejoratively” as “men who obey women,” she added.

Though Yamaura lamented the cost of her decision—on top of the financial cost of changing her name to Takahashi on credit cards and other official documents, she’s no longer entitled to certain tax benefits accorded to married couples, such as when inheriting her husband’s wealth after his death—she maintains it was the right one: “There’s no other way. It’s also unhappy to live as someone else.”