Modern Japanese doesn’t have the equivalent of “Miss” or “Mrs” to distinguish between single and married women. Instead, the way you can identify a wedded woman is that she’ll almost certainly have her husband’s name.
In the United States, the number of women choosing to keep the names they were born with is rising, though they remain a minority: 22 percent of those who married for the first time in the 2010s, according to a recent survey for the New York Times.
In Japan, the figure is closer to 4 percent.
The most obvious explanation is a law — which the country’s highest court has just rejected an appeal to overturn — that says all married couples must share a last name.
It doesn’t specify whose last name. In fact, nothing in the law itself says that women must take their husband’s name. The reasons why an overwhelming majority of them do are far more insidious than that.
Just like in the US, the biggest is centuries-old patriarchy. It’s no coincidence that Japan’s civil law requiring shared surnames dates from 1896. In its judgment on Dec. 16, Japan’s Supreme Court directly deferred to tradition, with Chief Justice Itsuro Terada saying that the practice is “deeply rooted in our society” and “enables people to identify themselves as part of a family in the eyes of others.”
Surveys suggest that most Japanese people would agree with him: A poll for the Asahi Shimbun, a liberal newspaper, found that 78 percent of respondents said they would choose to share a surname with their spouse, including 81 percent of women surveyed. Just 11 percent said they would keep two different names.
Regardless, 52 percent said that couples should have a choice in the matter, compared to 34 percent who opposed reform.
The Supreme Court insists that couples do have a choice, sort of. Since the law doesn’t specifically require women alone to change their names, the judges ruled, it can’t be said to violate “equality between men and women.”
In a country with one of the largest gender wage gaps of any developed nation, with one of the smallest shares of women on boards, where women do the vast majority of domestic work and occupy just 9 percent of seats in parliament, that statement does not reflect the reality. A bit like saying that pigs can fly, if only they’d go out and get themselves jet packs.
It’s telling, also, that just three of the 15 justices in Japan’s Supreme Court are women. All three of them voted against upholding the law, along with two male judges.
The rule will continue to stand, but there are workarounds. Some women continue to use their birth name in professional and everyday life, and reserve their married name for official documents. Others opt not to register their marriages with the state, though that can entail upsetting difficulties when it comes to parental rights, taxes, medical decisions and inheritance.
There is one exception to the law, however: If a Japanese person marries a foreigner, Japan doesn’t require either of them to change their name. In fact, the process for doing so is relatively complicated, in some cases requiring permission from a family court. It’s one instance where women can be grateful to Japan’s national pride.
An even smaller number of couples take the woman’s last name. I know one otherwise traditional wife and husband in their 60s who decided to do so, but not for political reasons: The woman’s father ran a successful restaurant in his name and her husband, from a family lower in the social hierarchy, chose to adopt her more prestigious surname and become heir to the family business. (There was no question of the woman or either of her two sisters taking over. Patriarchy wins, again.)
For other Japanese, female and male, who want to keep their own names, the fight will have to continue.
Kyoko Tsukamoto — legal name Kyoko Kojima — is one of five women who filed a suit with the Supreme Court to have the one-name law declared unconstitutional. She and her husband married and divorced immediately before and after having their first two children, in order to register the births legally but continue to live with their own surnames. She was eventually pressured into remaining married — and renamed — when her boss criticized her decision.
“My identity was Kyoko Tsukamoto. What happens to a person who loses that identity?” the 80-year-old said in an emotional response to the ruling. “I can’t live as Kyoko Tsukamoto, and now I won’t be able to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto.”
She urged the younger generation to take up the battle. If they do, one day Japanese women might finally get the wish that Tsukamoto was denied.
Jessica Phelan is GlobalPost's Asia editor, based in Fukuoka, Japan. Follow her on Twitter @jessicalphelan.