Japan’s Top Court Upholds Law Requiring Spouses to Share Surname

Law Does Not Specify Which Surname


TOKYO — Japan’s highest court on Wednesday upheld a law dating back more than a century that requires married couples to share the same surname, rejecting a claim that it discriminates against women by effectively forcing them to give up their names in favor of their husbands’.

The ruling was a blow to Japanese women seeking to keep their maiden names after marriage. Some couples have chosen not to register their marriages — opting instead to stay in common-law relationships with fewer legal protections — in order to keep separate surnames.

“When I heard the ruling I started crying, and even now it hurts,” said Kyoko Tsukamoto, 80, a retired high school teacher who was one of five plaintiffs trying to overturn the law.

Ms. Tsukamoto, whose legal married name is Kojima, said she had “lost her identity” because of the ruling. She and her husband of 55 years registered their marriage decades ago only because they wished to prevent their three children from being born out of wedlock, which carries a strong stigma in Japan. They divorced and remarried between the children’s births, she said, in protest against the law.

“My name is Kyoto Tsukamoto, but I can’t live or die as Kyoko Tsukamoto,” she said, alluding to the lack of official recognition for her preferred name in government records and other official contexts.

The prohibition against separate surnames has survived decades of challenges in the courts and in Parliament, but it was the first time a suit seeking to overturn it had reached the Supreme Court. Ten of the court’s 15 justices ruled that the ban, first imposed in 1898, was consistent with the constitutional protections for gender equality.

Although the law does not specify which spouse’s surname must be used, wives adopt their husbands’ names in an estimated 95 percent of cases.

The chief justice, Itsuro Terada, said the law did not impose an undue burden on women partly because they could continue using their maiden names in their professional lives, a practice that has become more widely accepted in recent years.

The government began allowing married civil servants, for instance, to use their former surnames for official business in 2001.

“The issue of separate names for spouses should be debated in Parliament,” Justice Terada said, throwing the issue back to the legislature.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have to calibrate its response carefully. Mr. Abe has positioned himself as an ally of working women, contending that Japan needs to keep more women in the labor force as its population shrinks and ages. But many members of his right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party support the surname law, and the party has quashed previous parliamentary initiatives aimed at changing it.

Newspaper surveys have shown that a slim majority of the public favors changing the law to allow couples to keep separate surnames.

The plaintiffs first filed suit against the law in 2011 and had appealed to the Supreme Court after two lower courts rejected their claims. They were seeking 6 million yen, or about $50,000, in damages, but their more pressing goal, they said, was to force the government to change the law.

In a separate decision on Wednesday that was more heartening for women’s rights campaigners, the Supreme Court struck down a rule requiring divorced women to wait at least 150 days before remarrying. The rule is intended to prevent confusion over paternity in cases in which the divorcing woman is pregnant, but critics called it outdated and sexist.

The court did not reject the basic principle of a waiting period, however, but merely demanded a shorter time frame, saying that anything over 100 days was an unconstitutional burden.