Japanese Fight to Retain Their Family Names

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Tomoko Sasaki

TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–Nobu Yatabe has waited two years to tie the knot and says she is happy to hold out longer if it means she can keep her maiden name.

“I only dream of a wedding, even though my partner is getting impatient,” the sprightly acupuncturist says. “I really want to go ahead but don’t know when the big day is ever going to come.”

If Japanese feminists have their way,Yatabe’s day could come soon. This month, the Japanese Diet may debate a bill that would allow women to keep their maiden names when they marry.And just getting it that far is seen as a major victory.

“Having our own surnames plays a vital role in preserving our identity,” says Yatabe, 28, head of the Forum for Couples with Separate Surnames, a group of 30 women lobbying the government for the new legislation. “There are married women in my group who want to divorce and remarry their husbands when Japan finally has new laws.”

According to Japanese civil law, a couple must decide on one surname when they register their marriage. Traditionally, most women take their groom’s name, much to the dismay of feminists who accuse the system of discouraging gender equality.

“Even as a child I used to wonder why it was that my father was always treated as the head in the family despite all the work my mother put in. I decided then I do not want to follow in her footsteps,” Yatabe says.

As Popular Support Grows, Japanese Legislators Say They Fear Social Breakdown

The forum’s proposal has turned into a desperate battle in the Japanese Diet, with women’s groups pitched against powerful Liberal Democratic Party male politicians who insist that the same surname protects family unity.

The need to preserve family unity against social breakdown is growing more urgent in Japan, argue members of the Liberal Democratic Party’s judicial affairs division, which raised objections to a new set of bills that women tried to submit to last April’s Diet session.

Proponents such as Tomoko Sasaki, also a Liberal Democratic Party Diet member, say this argument is unrealistic.

“There is no connection between family breakdown and the right for women to have the choice of selecting their surnames after marriage,” she says. “This argument smacks of exactly what we are trying to break out from: gender roles that restrict women’s roles to the family.”

If individual politicians introduce the legislation, rather than a party, the bill has a good chance of being debated in the Diet this month, says Mitsuko Yamaguchi, spokesman for International Women’s Year Liaison Group, one of Japan’s oldest grassroots organizations.

Recent polls suggest more Japanese favor the use of separate surnames for married couples, given the rapid modernization of their society.

A Cabinet survey last year found that 65 percent of respondents supported the change, up from 55 percent in 1996. Women in their 30s and men in their 20s were most supportive.

The first landmark in the intensive lobbying campaign by feminists was in 1996, when the Legislative Council, an advisory body to the justice minister, drafted a revision of the Civil Code that would permit a two-family name system.

Since then there have been piecemeal successes, including several times when new legislation to change the old system has almost made it to the Japanese Diet. A petition with 1.8 million signatures from women was partially responsible.

Last summer, Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama endorsed the much-anticipated change but under an watered-down version, apparently in a bid to placate senior politicians. Moriyama’s bill specifies only couples with a compelling reason and the approval of a family court could hold different surnames.

An “exceptions” clause in that bill would allow spouses to be able to decide on the surname of their children when they are born, which would assuage the apprehensions of women who are torn between keeping their surnames and wanting their children to carry on their father’s.

Surname Tradition Has Feudal Roots

The one-surname tradition officially began immediately after World War II, when Japan incorporated a family-register system that keeps records of the country’s families. A couple starts the register–under a common surname–when they marry, providing legal proof the status of each person in it. Copies are kept in the couple’s locality and with the Justice Ministry.

Opponents view the register as an offshoot of feudal times, when women belonged to households headed by men. Yamaguchi says the family register effectively ignores the rights of women as equal partners in a marriage.

For example, women who go by their maiden names need to show evidence to prove they are the person in their family register when applying for a passport or a driver’s license, or when registering ownership of real estate.

Seiko Noda, who at 42 is a younger member of the Liberal Democratic Party, supports the revision. “Families are made up of individuals and Japan should leave the surname issue up to their discretion,” she says.

Meanwhile, Japanese women have begun to use their maiden names on their business cards and among friends. In keeping with the times, 16 prefectural governments allow employees to use their premarital family names and the central government followed suit in October.

Japanese editorials have also begun to note that the contemporary family takes many forms, including single mothers, and is no longer bound by the tradition.

Meanwhile, Yatabe says she is waiting eagerly for that champagne wedding to finally make herself and her loved ones happy.

“I am hoping those male politicians will soon acknowledge that Japanese women are no longer willing to be subservient to men. A new legislation supporting the right for a woman to maintain her maiden name is critical in our struggle for equality,” she says.

Suvendrini Kakuchi is a writer in Tokyo.

For more information:

Tomoko Sasaki
(In Japanese):
http://www.tomokosasaki.jp/

Tajima Yoko
(In Japanese):
http://www.ne.jp/asahi/tajima/yoko/

For more information:

Also see Women’s Enews, March 3, 2001:
“Gov. Jane Swift Mirrors Our Doubts about Mothering”:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/492/



Gov. Jane Swift May Not Have Actually Been Governor

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–She ran Massachusetts for a year and a half and earned the distinction of becoming the first governor in U.S. history to give birth while in office.

But Jane Swift–succeeded last week by fellow Republican Mitt Romney–is not likely to see her portrait hanging on Beacon Hill. A clause in the Bay State’s constitution states that governors must be elected by the people and sworn in before the state legislature.

When then-Lt. Gov. Swift took office in April 2001, no such ceremony was held. Swift replaced the state’s 69th governor, Paul Cellucci, who became U.S. ambassador to Canada. Venture capitalist Romney was inaugurated Thursday as the commonwealth’s 70th governor.

In a term marked by seemingly nonstop interest in her complex–and highly modern–family life, Swift invariably was described as “acting governor” of Massachusetts. Billboards greeting newcomers at state airports and borders, however, carried cheerful welcoming messages from “Gov. Jane Swift.”

Swift, 37, made at least some measure of gubernatorial history by working from her hospital bed after doctors placed her on bed rest shortly before the birth of twin girls. Under pressure from the state GOP, she declined to run for governor in November after Romney–scion of a well-known Republican family and former head of the U.S. Olympic Organizing Committee in Salt Lake City–expressed interest in the job.

Swift had no comment about the question of how state historians will remember her. “There’s no doubt she’s been the governor, but because of the constitution, it’s an awkward position,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin.

— Elizabeth Mehren is the New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.


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