Separate surnames: the breakdown of families vs. the emancipation of women by Karl Jakob Krogness, Ph.D., Ritsumeikan University

21. Dec 2009

In the last days of August, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) put a decisive end to the Liberal Democratic Party’s  (LDP) half century of practically uninterrupted rule. Soon after, 29 September, the new minister of justice, Keiko Chiba (DPJ), announced she would introduce early next year a bill for revising the Civil Code in order to introduce an optional separate surnames system for married couples. Such a bill would arguably reform the family model that has ruled Japanese social life for over a century. It is therefore not surprising that the LDP, which has fought such legislation for decades, as well as conservative voices within the DPJ cabinet attacked immediately. For these opponents, a family united under one surname is more than a beautiful custom. The social fabric of modern Japan is underpinned by the common surname: separate surnames will weaken family bonds. As Shizuka Kamei of the People’s New Party (PNP) and the current minister in charge of financial services and postal reform put it on 14 October: “I don’t really understand the mentality behind the insistence on having separate surnames. The surnames of husband, wife, and their children will be different. It as if the house turns into an apartment; is it such a good thing for a family to have a slew of completely different name plates?” (Yomiuri Online 2009). Kamei was a prominent member of LDP for three decades until he formed PNP in 2005. The conservative Sankei Shinbun reported that Chiba 16 October “showing displeasure” responded to her fellow minister: “On the contrary, I don’t understand his mentality,” and went on to urge Kamei to try to comprehend the optional surname system (Sankei Shinbun online 2009). The separate surname bill does have strong support within the coalition government, too, especially from the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Mizuho Fukushima who is now minister of consumer affairs and declining birth rate, and gender equality. In fact, Fukushima and Chiba co-wrote in 1993 a book called Separate surname (f?fubessei) in 1993.

“House” can in Japanese signify a family, a building, and a house that endures over generations (as in “the house of Windsor), and by using this term for family, Kamei essentially highlights that a surname reform would tamper with a family model that has been in place since 1898 and still requires the identification of a de facto family head. The subjective notion of a family “head” – a central aspect of the pre-war family model – survived the post-war legal reforms mainly via the same-surname requirement. The authority of the househead was abolished, but as the common surname chosen today remains that of the male spouse, his role in the family is still widely interpreted as superior.

At the core of the present surname system is the requirement that when filling out the marriage notification form, the marrying couple must select either the surname of the male or the female to be the common surname for the conjugal couple and those children they register in their conjugal family register. Although many young men and women today dislike making this choice, most wind up choosing the surname of the male partner. According to a survey I am conducting at the moment, the reasons young women give for deferring to the male surname are, typically, “because it is normal,” “because the male is the pillar of a family” or “the man has more authority in Japanese society.” A more grudging response can be “because I don’t want to make a big issue out of it.”

In general, the older segment of the population tends to be against separate surnames but it seems as if many young men and women would be relieved if the common surname requirement fell away. According to a recent October poll from Asahi Shinbun, 48% were for an optional separate surname system and 41% were opposed (Asahi Online 2009b). Another public opinion poll from December 2006 indicated a clear preference among young people for an elective separate conjugal surname system (DPJ 2009).

While most industrialized nations allow separate surnames, this has been a bone of contention in Japan for decades. In the 1980s a movement gathered to improve women’s rights and individual freedom, including the right to choose your own name. In a response, the Ministry of Justice began deliberations to improve the marriage and divorce system in 1991, and in 1996 a general plan for a Civil Code revision was laid out which, among other things, recommended an optional separate conjugal surname system. Underlying these recommendations was the larger trend towards the emancipation of women and as well as the UN Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but also a need to address domestic issues, such as the falling birth rate and the need for more workers. Still, the LDP did not act on this recommendation, nor on any of separate surname bills which the DPJ submitted yearly from 1998, the year the party was founded. DPJ submitted its 11th bill in April 2009.  Now half a year later the tables are turned, and the question is now: will the surname issue fare differently with DJP in power?

On the opposing forces’ concern that separate surnames will cause a general breakdown of the family, Hatoyama has said: “Well, I am not entirely of that opinion” (Asahi Online 2009a).  


Asahi Online (2009a) ??????????????????????????. [“Shape up” public expenses on officials’ food and drink: PM Hatoyama on the 30th ]. Asahi Online. 30 September.

Asahi Online (2009b) ???????????????????????. [65% in favor of Hatoyama cabinet: Asahi Shinbun October Poll]. Asahi Online. 13 October.

DPJ (2009) ?????????????????????????????. [Introduction of an elective system of separate conjugal surnames: presentation to the House of Councillors a bill on a partial revision of the Civil Code ]. (accessed: 25 October 2009).

Sankei Shinbun online (2009) ?????????????????????????????????????. Sankei. 30 October.

Yomiuri Online (2009) ????????????. [Finance minister Kamei opposes separate surnames]. Yomiuri Online. 15 October.