Japan Data

Japan’s Enforcing of Same Surnames for Couples Has Only a Short History

Society

Japan is the only developed country where it is mandatory for married couples to have the same surname.

In Japan, Article 750 of the Civil Code specifies that a husband and wife must have the same family name. To legally get married, one or the other is required to change surname—the only exception is in international marriages, where different names are allowed.

While married couples can take either the husband’s or the wife’s name, in a 2017 demographic survey of 606,866 marriages, only 25,049 (4.1%) were found to have chosen the latter option. For the vast majority of women, getting married means having to change their name.

The history behind couples having the same name is not actually that old. It was not until the early Meiji era (1868–1912), that the general public could even use surnames. They are said to have been introduced to improve the family registration system for the purpose of collecting taxes and managing military enlistment. Initially, women kept their family surname; however, in 1896 the Civil Code was amended to specify that married couples must have the same surname. This means couples have only had to have the same surname for around the last 120 years.

Demand for couples being able to choose separate surnames is growing as women play a greater role in the workforce and men and women are becoming more equal partners, taking on lifestyles where they cooperate on housework and childcare. There is strong resistance to the idea within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party though, including the opinion that separate surnames weaken family unity. At a debate before the upper house election in July 2019, when asked if they were in favor of separate surnames, out of the attending seven leaders of the different parties, only Prime Minister Abe Shinzō did not raise his hand. Incidentally, the Minister of Justice states that Japan is the only developed country with this system.

Surnames and Marriage: A Timeline

Edo Period (1603–1868) Farmers and townspeople are not allowed to have surnames.
Women of samurai families keep their family name even after marriage.
1870 The general public are allowed to start using surnames.
1875 Mandatory use of surnames begins (for tax collection and military registration purposes).
1876 Married couples have different surnames. It is stipulated that the wife uses her original family name.
1896 The (former) Civil Code states that married couples must use the same surname. 
1947 The revised Civil Code (current law) stipulates that a couple should both use either the husband’s or the wife’s surname. 
1988 A female researcher at a national university sues to use her maiden name for work.
She loses her initial case in 1993, but reaches a High Court settlement in 1996.
1996 The Legislative Council presents an outline for Civil Code revisions that would introduce a system for allowing couples to choose separate surnames.
2001 Government officials are allowed to use the names they are commonly known by.
2002 The Ministry of Justice prepares a bill to allow separate surnames, but strong opposition within the Liberal Democratic Party prevents it from being submitted.
2006 Commonly used names are allowed to be noted on passports.
2010 The Ministry of Justice prepares another separate surname bill; however, due to dissent within the ruling coalition party, it is not submitted.
2011 For the first time, five people file a lawsuit claiming that the provisions of the Civil Code are unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court rules in 2015 that the Civil Code regarding using the same surname for couples is constitutional. It states that this is a well-established system in society and it is rational for a family to share the same name.
2018 Aono Yoshihisa, president of the software development company Cybozu—who chose his wife’s name when they married, but uses his birth name for business—sues the government for damages, claiming that having the same family name has impeded his work.
The Tokyo District Court rejects the claim in 2019.

Compiled by Nippon.com based on the Ministry of Justice website and various news reports.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research conducts a national survey on household changes every five years. For the first time in 2018, more than 50% of respondents agreed that it was fine for couples to have different surnames.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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