On married surnames, top court points to responsibility of Diet

A system requiring a husband and wife to choose the same surname cannot be called unreasonable. A recent judicial ruling, which so concluded, is appropriate.

The Supreme Court’s Grand Bench handed down a ruling that legal provisions, including in the Civil Code, which require married couples to use the same surnames upon marriage, are constitutional. Three couples, whose attempted marriage registrations as spouses with different surnames were not accepted, had filed complaints in 2018.

The Constitution states that the dignity of individuals and the equality of husband and wife are the basis of marriage. In relation to this point, in 2015, the Grand Bench had ruled that the Civil Code provision was constitutional, saying that “there exists no gender inequality” in the provision.

The latest ruling can be said to have followed in the footsteps of the 2015 ruling. As not much time has passed since the last ruling, the top court may have considered that the social situation has not changed enough to alter the ruling.

The Grand Bench also said that the question of what system is desirable and the constitutionality of the current system are matters that exist in different dimensions, pointing out that the nature of the system is “exclusively a matter to be discussed in the Diet.”

Four out of the 15 justices on the Grand Bench said legal provisions that a married couple must have the same surname run counter to the Constitution. Currently, more than 90% of married women change their surnames to those of their husbands.

On the other hand, the number of working women is increasing and public awareness is changing. According to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office in 2017, a record high 42.5% of respondents answered that they would accept a system that allows married couples to choose to have separate surnames.

It is understandable that some people feel uneasy about a situation in which women are forced to change their surnames upon marriage. However, if couples were to have different surnames, the issue of how to handle their children’s surnames would remain.

The Diet needs to listen widely to the voices of the public and deepen discussions on the issue of surnames for married couples.

In 1996, the Legislative Council, an advisory body to the justice minister, proposed the introduction of an elective surname system for married couples. In response, the Justice Ministry prepared a bill to revise the Civil Code for that purpose. However, its submission to the Diet was cancelled due to persistent opposition within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that said “different surnames would damage the sense of unity among family members.”

In April this year, the LDP set up a working team on an alternative surname system for married couples. This time as well, the gap between those who favor such a system and those who are cautious about it has not been closed. In the end, the party did not go beyond compiling a proposal to sort out the points at issue.

Thorough discussions should be made by identifying the advantages and challenges of both the current system and an alternative surname system so that they can lead to a national debate.

More than 60% of companies allow the use of maiden names at the workplace. Together with the discussions of surnames, it is also important to promote the development of an environment in which women can work comfortably.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 24, 2021.