A group of Japanese women filed a lawsuit earlier this week to overturn an archaic law that requires them to take their husbands’ surnames when they marry. This is based in a line from the Civil Code that requires married couples to share their last name, which in practice forces women to give up their names, because only rarely do the husbands choose to take the wife’s name (usually this happens when the wife is from a noble family).
The plaintiffs, four women and one of their husbands, argue that the law breaches a constitutional equal rights guarantee. They are also demanding financial compensation for emotional distress.
“It’s like losing part of my self,” said Kaori Oguni, who married five years ago but privately uses Oguni as her family name. “Marriage is supposed to be joyful… but I guess quite a lot of people feel agony about losing their names.”
Surprisingly, Japanese public opinion is divided on the issue. In a recent government survey, 37 percent of respondents said they supported a revision of the civil code, while 35 percent were against.
Reading about this case is bizarre for me, because I’ve never questioned whether I would keep my last name; although it certainly should be up to every couple to decide what they want to call their family, I know that I would feel uncomfortable accepting a new last name if my husband wasn’t doing the same thing.
To require that couples share a last name signals an anachronistic kind of inequity, and it’s unsurprising that most wives feel pressure to take their husbands’ names. The words of the women who filed the lawsuit are extremely poignant; one woman said that having to use her husband’s name for more than a half century was “like having a splinter in my heart.” Let’s hope that this lawsuit is successful, and that this retired schoolteacher can officially go back to the name that she has always felt was hers.
Photo from Flickr.