Use of birth names by married people increasingly accepted in Japanese society

REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
A man puts an engagement ring on a woman’s finger during a photo opportunity at a jewellery store in Tokyo June 2, 2009.

The requirement that husbands and wives in Japan must use the same surname was stipulated in the former civil law that came into effect in 1898. The current Civil Law enacted in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, continued this rule.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), however, commoners were not allowed to have last names, and the use of different family names by a married couple was briefly introduced in the early Meiji era (1868-1912) by government order. It is therefore not a long-standing Japanese tradition for a married couple to use a single surname.

In 1996, an advisory council to the justice minister suggested that married couples should be able to use different family names if they like, amid the increasing participation of women in society. But a bill to revise the relevant law was not submitted because members of the Liberal Democratic Party expressed numerous objections, arguing for example that using different surnames would negatively effect the unity of a family.

Amending the law was discussed again in 2010 under the administration of the former Democratic Party of Japan, but it failed once more due to objections from inside and outside the party.

According to the Justice Ministry, Japan is believed to currently be the only country in the world that legally requires the use of a single surname by a married couple. Countries in Europe and Latin America, as well as Taiwan, have adopted systems in which couples can choose to use different last names.

Some countries changed their old system through court decisions. Married couples used to have to use the same surname in Germany, but the federal constitutional court ruled this unconstitutional in 1993. Married couples were subsequently allowed to use not only different family names but also double-barreled surnames.

In Thailand, a constitutional court ruling in 2005 allowed married couples to use different last names.

While discussions on amending the law have stagnated in Japan, the use of birth names is becoming possible in more and more situations in everyday life. Efforts in this respect by companies and government organizations are thus easing the disadvantage felt by people who have changed their surnames after getting married.

It is ironic that these efforts have provided grounds for the 2015 ruling against the use of different last names by the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench, as well as for the ruling Wednesday.

In a 2018 survey of 440 listed companies and other businesses across the country by the Institute of Labor Administration in Tokyo, 67.5% of the responding companies said they allowed employees to use their birth names. This was the largest percentage since the institute started the survey, and has more than quintupled in 25 years.

Central government employees have been allowed to use birth names since 2001 and to conclude official documents with their birth names since 2017. People can also add their original surnames to their resident certificates, My Number identification cards and driver’s licenses.

In contrast, the three major smartphone companies only accept the names listed in family registers, in a bid to prevent illegal use. Some financial institutions also do not accept the use of birth names when opening an account.