Japan just undermined one of its key economic policies by upholding an arcane, gender-biased law

Image: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won
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The decision to change one’s name after marrying is a big one. On the one hand, it brings up issues of self-identity, and—for women—the desire perhaps to resist a system that historically erased their autonomy. On the other, there is the issue of family identity. For people who think a shared surname is important, the key reason tends to be wrapped up in the identity and cohesion of the family unit.

Increasingly, though, couples are making different decisions. They’re keeping their own names, combining names, and discussing all kinds of other options, including the man taking the woman’s name. Same-sex unions, for which no “tradition” exists, are increasingly recognized, revivifying the debate. Choices are legion.

But not in Japan. There, a law dating back to 1896 states that married couples must share a surname. And five women who took the government to court earlier this year to challenge the law just lost.

The argument for upholding the ruling: family cohesion.

It’s a highly cultural opinion, though. In China, Italy, many Spanish-speaking cultures, and many Muslim societies, women don’t change their names on marriage. In the places where they often do—like the US, UK, India, and many African countries—there’s a strong argument that it does much to prop up patriarchal systems that hold women back in other ways. In one very practical example, women who change their names mid-career risk losing contacts, and their achievements being less easily tracked.

Japan’s 120-year-old law doesn’t specify that it must be the wife who changes her name—but that’s the reality in 96% of cases, according to the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Japan’s aging labor market desperately needs to encourage more women to participate. The country has new policies for achieving this, and they’re working, to an extent. Yet its culture discourages them from combining a family with work—and Japan urgently needs to improve the way women are treated in work if it wants them to stay there.

By comparison, today’s surname ruling may seem like a smaller battle. But names have power. If they didn’t, the government wouldn’t find it necessary to legislate so many of them out of existence.