5 Women In Japan Have Challenged The Courts, To Retain Their Maiden Surnames

Posted: December 18, 2015

5 women in Japan have challenged the courts to retain their maiden surname. Here’s what happened and why.

 “Sandhya Ganesh, is that you?” gushes the voice of her fourth grade English teacher, incredulous at the thought of her favourite student all grown up. “It’s Sriram now,” she says, a smile carved on her cheeks – her previous identity unrecognisable; transformed, even. In a way, hadn’t it?

From something as trivial as a profile on a social medium, to the changes made in the official documents: what is the hassle about a surname? Why is it worth holding onto; enough to defy and sue the laws of your nation? For that is exactly what five women in Japan are currently aiming to achieve, undeterred by the discouraging results of similar cases in the past.

The Roots of the Tradition

Feudalism brought with it a plethora of changes: one of the most groundbreaking being the recognition and maintenance of records; people, as well as property. Thus, surnames were introduced. Men were branded with surnames that would reflect an aspect of their identity: their occupations, physical features, addresses et cetera.

Curiously enough, women were initially denied surnames; simply because the norm then dictated that a woman, after marriage, became the property of the man. It’s changes were no better: women went on to be designated with the surname of their husbands, the concept being that the nameless woman, now shares a surname with her husband as a mark of their unity. However, in all legal aspects, it was the husband who was entitled to use the surname.

The First act of rebellion

The archaic tradition persisted till the 1970s. Not only were women forced to take up the surname of their better half, they were also subject to several restrictions, from voting to driving, and even more bizarre illogical complications such as not being issued credit cards in their names. Women slowly began retaining their maiden names, and the cultural norms loosened in certain ways. Surprisingly, the number of degrees held by women increased during this period.

What prompted women to retain their maiden names was simply the identity it helped them hold onto. They were their name, in a nutshell. Changing that, in the present day, not only induces legal complexities, it also has a negative impact on their career, for a ‘brand name’ as such has already been established.

The Current Argument: Family vs. Independence

Returning to the current controversy at hand: the case of the five Japanese women who are fighting for their rights to amend an age-old law. Although the law only specifies that a married couple should retain a common surname, there is a large gender disparity: it’s a shocking minority of 4% of Japanese men who adopt the surname of their wife. The year isn’t 1980, or 2000; it’s 2015.

The primary argument on both sides is essentially the effect it has on a family, with most conservative people believing that different surnames in one family complicate the family ties. Women are combatting this with proof that the strength of families transcend a surname, and presenting alternatives such as hyphened surnames and hybrid surnames, as well as questioning why if it was a matter of such simplicity, men aren’t opting to adopt their other half’s surnames.

At the end of it all, it comes down to the liberty of women: no issues inadopting the surname of their husband, or retaining their own – it should be just be their own choice, rather than imposed upon them; a feat countries such as Greece, Korea and France have successfully accomplished. These five women simply hope to add Japan to the list.

 Cover image via Shutterstock

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