The Supreme Court issued a series of rulings in June that declared it constitutional for the Civil Code and other laws not to allow married couples to maintain separate family names. The rulings were in response to lawsuits and cases that contested the constitutionality of the single-surname rule.
Izumi Onji, 65, a doctor in Hiroshima Prefecture, is among those fighting this legal battle.
In 2018, Onji filed a lawsuit with the Hiroshima District Court and is now awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision, which is expected by the end of the year. Despite societal changes affecting the nature of families and the way people work, there has been little political momentum toward allowing married couples to keep separate surnames.
“Even if a new system is realized, I doubt there will be many couples who would actually want to keep their surnames separate,” Onji says.
“It’s not that we want to be the majority, and we have no desire to criticize couples who use the same name,” she explains. “We just want people to have more choice.”
Onji married one of her university classmates in 1983. Upon getting married, she changed her family name to her husband’s and updated her name on her medical license. From then on, she continued to use her maiden name in her daily life, but not at work.
“To me, my husband’s surname was nothing more than what I called him when we were classmates,” she said. “Changing my own surname made me feel like I had ceased to be myself, and that sense of loss wouldn’t go away.”
In 1990, she went through what is called a “paper divorce,” in which she officially divorced her husband but the couple continued their marital relationship as before. But this kind of de facto marital status comes with some legal issues, such as one partner being unable to inherit the other partner’s property if they die.
In May 2018, Onji filed a lawsuit with the Hiroshima District Court seeking ¥500,000 in damages from the government, claiming that the provisions of the Civil Code and the family registration law that force married couples to use the same surname violate the principle of equality guaranteed by the Constitution. Her lawsuit was dismissed by both the district and high courts, and she is currently appealing to the Supreme Court.
On June 23, the Supreme Court ruled that the provision is constitutional in a family law case brought by three Tokyo couples who, like Onji, are married in a practical but not legal sense. This was the second time that the top court had ruled on the current surname system for married couples, after its judgment in December 2015. As before, the court stated that the matter should ultimately be left to legislators.
The following day, the First Petty Bench of the Supreme Court also rejected a special appeal that Onji had filed with her husband at a family affairs trial in 2018, saying that it was constitutional.
But at the same time, the Supreme Court also mentioned that “depending on changes in circumstances that could affect the legitimacy of the legal system, (the single-surname system) may be evaluated as a violation of the Constitution.”
“Ever since the Supreme Court ruling in 2015, the public attitude has become significantly more in favor of allowing married couples to use separate surnames, but there has been no progress at all when it comes to legal revision,” Onji says. “I take this latest reference (by the top court) as a warning to politicians to take action before it has to issue an ‘unconstitutional’ ruling.”
While former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is known for his opposition to changing the surname system, his successor Yoshihide Suga used to speak more positively about allowing it.
It was perhaps of little surprise, then, that when Suga came to power, both proponents and opponents of the system within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party formed parliamentary groups of their own. A working team was also formed to discuss the nature of the surname system itself.
But in June, the LDP leadership decided to hold off on forming the party’s stance on the matter in order to avoid an intraparty split ahead of a Lower House election that must be held by autumn. The surname debate could even evolve into a key issue in the next general election.
“My name makes me who I am,” says Onji. “What we want to achieve is a society where everyone can be themselves and choose their own name.”
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published July 19.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.