According to a Japanese law that has been followed since 1896, two partners cannot be legally married if they don't share the same last name. Now, five Japanese women are suing the government to keep their surnames and abolish the law, thus demanding the right to their own identities. The women's suit states that the law, more than a century old, is unconstitutional and infringes upon the civil rights of married couples. And while the law itself does not actually dictate whether the man or woman in the relationship gives up their surname, the numbers (and the patriarchy) don't lie, as The Guardian reports that 96 percent of Japanese women adopt their husbands' last names. That's not shocking, as it is similarly uncommon — and often mocked and deemed emasculating — for husbands in the United States to take on their wives' surnames.
The Japanese supreme court will decide the law's future on Dec. 16, and the lawsuit has already revealed an enormous divide within the Japanese population's understanding of gender roles. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper polled its readers last month, and according to their poll, only 52 percent of the Japanese population supports repealing the law — and that newspaper is considered a liberal publication. Additionally, two courts have already "ruled against the women." Japanese conservatives claim that allowing married couples to have individual last names — or really, allowing women to express an identity separate from their husbands — threatens to undo the social fabric of the entire nation. Masaomi Takamori, a constitutional scholar, told NHK, a Japanese public TV station, "Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order, and the basis for social welfare."
Throughout history, Japanese women have had to handle the inconvenience of balancing two identities: the actual name with which they've always identified personally and choose to use professionally, and then the name that they are forced to use legally (which many women deal with in the States, too). It is also not uncommon for Japanese women to refuse legal marriage with their partners in order to resist giving up their identities. Two of the five women filing the suit have also spoken out. Kaoro Oguni, who is a translator, told The Guardian:
By losing your surname ... you're being made light of, you're not respected ... It's as if part of your self vanishes... 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.
Kyoko Tsukamoto, 80 years old, is another plaintiff who only uses her birth name despite being married since 1960. She also wants a divorce, but her husband will not allow it. Tsukamoto told The Guardian, "I was born Tsukamoto, and I want to die Tsukamoto."
For many women, myself included, our names represent our history, our culture, and our accomplishments. I spoke to 17 women about why they refused to take their husband's last name (or why they will refuse to take their future husband's last name). They also shared conflicts that arose and compromises that had to be reached when they expressed a desire to hold onto their identities.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that many men have never even considered what it would feel like to lose the name that has belonged to them for their entire lives. Of course, choosing to take your husband's last name is not anti-feminist in any way, if that is your choice. There are also alternatives, such as you and your partner creating a whole new surname out of your individual monikers. For these 17 women, keeping their own surnames is what they personally chose to do, and it is a choice that women in Japan should be able to freely make for themselves as well.
1. Elizabeth, 30 (Married)
To me, changing my name was an archaic tradition designed to pass a woman off from her father's ownership to another man. I don't know why the tradition continues. I have happily kept my name and my husband his and it has caused no issues thus far. The evolution of marriage has (in my mind) not evolved with the times and has taken on new traits that are extremely sexist (and classist): elaborate proposals, asking the father for permission, father/parents giving away the daughter at the altar, etc. I'm an autonomous human being and part of my identity is in my name — why change it?
2. Laura, 24 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
I am in a P.h.D. program, and I will probably publish under my name before I get married so it would be impractical to change it. Also I just like my name and dislike institutionalized patriarchy.
3. Maya, 21 — Wants To Marry In The Future
My ancestors were enslaved and were (of course) given a European surname. The spelling of my last name was changed from "Valerie" to "Valree" not long ago. Not sure when or by whom, but we know a change of spelling occurred. My last name (its origin rooted in oppression) reminds me of my family's struggle, resilience, and, ultimately, freedom. I'm not against a hyphenated surname — but I'd like to keep my surname too for reasons listed. My dad thinks it's ludicrous as do many of the males in my family. They believe keeping my surname is not the way God intended. They also believe I have been brainwashed by feminists. LOL.
4. Jessica, 25 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
Marriage is a ways off for me, but I already know that I have no interest in taking my future husband's last name. It's a patriarchal and outdated practice. I probably won't put up a stink about our kids having his last name (even though that's patriarchal and outdated too) just because it'd be too difficult to keep up generations of hyphenating, but I do hope that we as a society come up with a less male-centric way of naming families in the near future... I don't expect [my family] to be upset by it. If anything, my family will be happy I decided to keep the name they gave me! Neither my mom nor my stepmom took my dad's last name, so they're used to it by now.
5. Lucy, 28 (Divorced)
I didn't want to lose my Spanish last name. It's one of the few ties I have to my diverse heritage. Also, I didn't like my ex-husband's last name. Actually, my ex independently said he wanted to take my last name without any suggestion from me. I was surprised. He also didn't like his last name.
6. Brigitte, 33 (Married)
I never wanted to [change my name] because our last name dies with my sister and me, since we have no brothers. When I did get married, I was even more adamant about keeping it for professional reasons too. Also, it's my name. It makes no sense for me to take someone else's name. My partner flirted with changing his name to mine, but it never happened.
7. Caroline, 26 (Married)
I just got married in November and I did not take my husband's last name. In short, I didn't take his last name because no one asks why he didn't take my last name. I'm not saying that angrily; I just think it is silly to do something purely because that is the way it has always been done. I am also proud of my last name. It is part of my identity. I am proud of every byline and stamp on my passport that would be nullified with a new name... My parents were unsurprised by my decision. And his parents totally understood that, as a writer, my name is my identity.
8. Sofia, 25 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
My last name is part of my identity. The concept that we are branded by our fathers (by having their last name) and then formally 'given away' by our fathers at our weddings and re-branded by our husbands (by taking their last name), is upsetting to me. I actually have my mom's last name (even though my parents are married) — she kept her last name, and I have every intention of doing the same. My last name is part of who I am and not something I have any desire to change. I personally see taking my husband's name as being his property, though I respect those who chose to make this decision — it is just not something I have ever wanted... My mother did the same thing, and I have always been very upfront with any serious partners I have that this is important to me. If it did upset my partner it would be a problem for me and would signal a larger incompatibility to me.
9. Jeanette, 25 (Engaged)
I have identified with my name for over two decades. I feel like it's my choice and I choose to put his last name at the end of mine. I'm proud of my last name and I do not want to lose my heritage.
10. Susanna, 28 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
Even if I marry a man, I'm not going to become an extension of him. I have a name that's gone with the person that is me my entire life, and as long as I'm me, I'll keep it. I don't expect that anyone would be upset by it; I don't hang around with jerks. Anyway, my mother never changed her name.
11. Isabella, 21 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
I don't want to define myself by my significant other and reject my family history.
12. Jenna, 25 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
I feel like someone else's last name is not my identity. I told my boyfriend that and he was totally fine with it. We decided to both change our last name to a mutual one that we come up with together once we get married.
13. Tess, 30 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
I'm my own person. Just like I wouldn't change my first name, why would I change my last name? When you get married you create a new family, you don't just join your husband's family. So if my husband wanted to create a new last name for both of us upon getting married, I'd consider it. And anyone I choose to marry would understand or would agree with me.
14. Alejandra, 28 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
My name is part of my identity, both in my selected industry and as a person. [My boyfriend] said "I just want us to have the same last name" so I responded "OK, then you can take mine." Which was obviously taken as an insult. What — my identity is transient but yours isn't?
15. Catherine, 24 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
My last name is a large part of my identity — it is pretty unique and has been used in a lot of my nicknames and monikers throughout the years. My boyfriend understands that I want to keep my last name and respects my decision. My mother kept her maiden name after she married my father so my family will most likely understand as well.
16. Tamara, 24 (Engaged)
I ultimately decided to change my name, but struggled with the decision. I did not want to change my name because it had been my personal and professional identity for so much of my life. As a performer (dancer) I have to market myself and have been credited with my maiden name for the last 10+ years. Changing my name would also mean erasing my cultural heritage (Irish). I found a compromise with my fiance which is to legally change my name for all domestic matters and maintain my maiden name for all professional and performing purposes... My fiancé was upset that I did not want to change my name. He felt that it meant I was not embracing our union and we wouldn't have a 'unified household' especially when it came time to have kids. When I consulted my mom about it, she told me to let this one go. She reminded me that I can maintain my independence and identity within the marriage with or without the name. My fiance has since expressed gratitude for my decision and acknowledged that he would never change his own.
17. Ms. Little, 25 (Wants To Marry In The Future)
I'm a teacher and my students know me for my name. It's on my ID card for the district, it's on my door (written on computer paper and stuck on with tape, but nevertheless), it's on my teacher website, it's attached to my school phone number extension, and it's what students past and present know me as. Besides all the other legal documents in my name, my name is important to me professionally. Being a teacher with a last name and a Ms. in front of it is sort of part of my identity... My family is fairly traditional. Every woman has taken/will take her husbands' last name. I will undoubtedly receive questions and probing, and so will my future husband.
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