Will Japanese women be able to keep their maiden names after marriage? Major lobby demands change

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TOKYO (AP) — A powerful Japanese business lobby is calling on the government to allow married couples to keep dual surnames, saying the lack of freedom to do so hinders women’s advancement and has even become a business risk.

In Japan, each wedded pair has to legally adopt one family name. While either surname can be used, 95% of women still traditionally adopt their husbands’, according to a 2022 government survey. Experts say such law only exists in Japan and have even accused it of putting women off marriage in a country already suffering dwindling nuptials.

Keidanren, or The Japan Business Federation, said Monday a the law has to be revised to fit a more diverse, equal and inclusive Japanese society.

This came months after about a dozen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit asking for the system to be changed.

“As women play more active roles and the number of female executives is on the rise, the surname issue has become a business risk that companies can no longer dismiss as a problem of certain individuals,” said Masakazu Tokura, head of Keidanren.

Tokura said many Japanese career women are already using their maiden names at work and on their business cards, including 90% of Keidanren female members. However, they still have to use their unified surnames on all legal documents, causing them issues when — for example — opening bank accounts, issuing credit cards, and traveling overseas as the names don’t match, he said.

Keidanren internally surveyed its members and 88% of female executives expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The proposal by the organization — which boasts over 1,500 Japanese companies and has regularly made economic policy recommendations — is seen as unusual for it has customarily supported Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s conservative governing Liberal Democratic Party that has shelved the dual surname idea for over three decades.

Tokura says the proposal will be submitted to the government next week following approval by the lobby’s board meeting. They also called on the parliament to swiftly support a change in the 1898 civil code which governs the adoption of surnames.

On Monday, when asked about the proposal, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi of the governing party said the public had varied opinions on the matter and that careful discussion was needed.

However, several surveys show the vast majority support a dual-surname household, and the ruling LDP, which also opposes same-sex marriage, is already facing growing calls to allow more diversity in family values and marriage. Many in the party support traditional gender roles and a paternalistic family system, arguing that allowing the dual-surname option would destroy family unity.

In 2015 and 2021, the Supreme Court found said the one-surname-only policy wasn’t unconstitutional but urged parliament to discuss the issue. But deliberations have stalled due to opposition by the governing party conservatives.

Akari Takahashi, a 22-year-old wedding planner, said she never questioned adopting her father’s surname until she traveled to Australia and her host mother expressed discontent with the idea of a unified family name.

“That’s when I realized something was wrong with it,” Takahashi said, adding she couldn’t imagine having to make such a choice.

The rights gap between men and women in Japan is among the world’s largest with Japan ranking 125th in a 146-nation survey by the World Economic Forum for 2023.

AP video journalist Richard Colombo contributed to this report.

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