Tokyo Report | Politics | Society | East Asia

Japan’s New Gender Equality Policy Takes a Step Back

Japan’s law requiring married couples to use the same surname has come under the spotlight as a significant obstacle to women’s empowerment.

Thisanka Siripala
Japan’s New Gender Equality Policy Takes a Step Back
Credit: Pixabay

On December 25, a fifth basic policy draft for gender equality, which made concrete recommendations regarding allowing different surnames after marriage, was dropped after heated pushback from conservative lawmakers.

Japan’s new five-year gender equality promotion policy fell short of embracing the use of premarital surnames despite growing calls within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to introduce a dual-surname policy. The original, more positive phrasing was slimmed down from three pages into just 10 lines which consisted of ambiguous wording: “many Japanese women continue working after marriage and the current system presents an obstacle for their daily lives.”

The LDP is generally known for its conservative stance on gender roles, but the resignation of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has unlocked more support for women’s social advancement. The shift to a dual-surname system, however, continues to divide the ruling party. An earlier meeting to discuss the basic gender equality promotion policy on December 8 ended in a near stalemate after 19 lawmakers expressed caution and 18 lawmakers voted in support of separate surnames.

On December 25 at the Council for Gender Equality meeting, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide refrained from directly addressing the controversy and stated, “We will form a policy which reflects women’s voices and aim for a society without gender bias for people in leadership positions.”

Japan is the only country in the world that does not officially allow married couples to have different surnames. The law requiring married couples to have the same surname – in practice requiring the woman to change her name to match her husband’s – was first introduced in 1898. But as women continue to work after marriage, maintaining their identity in the academic and business spheres is a practical step that can prevent career disruptions. The basic plan for gender equality draft acknowledged that mandating the same surnames for couples was hindering women’s success as their achievements are not carried over under their married name.

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The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed concern over the current family system in Japan and requested international perspectives be taken into consideration when reviewing the civil code and the Family Register Act.

Meanwhile, backlash from conservative LDP lawmakers has been driven by ideals around traditional family values. In 2015 the Supreme Court upheld the same surname system as constitutional, citing entrenched Japanese views on family and child rearing. The court judgement rejected the notion that the current system and changing surnames after marriage promotes gender discrimination or damage to individual identities. The court argued that “the family system is rooted in the history and culture of each country and international comparisons which ignore it are meaningless.”

Although 96 percent of women in Japan adopt their husband’s surname after marriage, a growing number of women are choosing to maintain their maiden name in social and professional settings, especially if they remain at the same company. A 2018 survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research found that 50.5 percent of married women believe couples should be allowed to retain different surnames. Public opinion appears to have grown increasingly accepting of a dual-surname system, with approval rising 9 points compared to 2013.

Minister of Gender Equality Hashimoto Seiko expressed support for introducing the option of different surnames and highlighted that the same surname law is a factor in Japan’s rapidly declining birth rate. It’s believed that some resistance to marriage can stem from wanting to continue one’s own family generational register, which under law certifies family relationships, birth, deaths, marriages, divorce, and designates a head of the household. While separate surnames are permitted for marriages between Japanese and foreign nationals, marriage between Japanese nationals means leaving one’s birth family registry for another.

There have been incremental inroads to permit the use of premarital names in social settings. In 2016 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved the use of premarital names in passports, albeit in parenthesis. That was expanded to resident cards and social security cards, without the need for official legal backing, in 2017. Judges and prosecutors are also able to work under their premarital name and arrests can be made in accordance with a premarital name on a driver’s license.  Some conservative lawmakers have proposed expanding the option of using premarital names unofficially, in parentheses, in order to minimize the inconvenience women face after marriage.

Ultimately the revised basic plan for gender equality highlighted the need for further discussion on the issue, underscoring Japan’s difficult progress toward gender equality.