No-one should be forced to change their surname

2 Jan 2016


In mid-December, the Supreme Court of Japanese ruled to uphold an 1892 law that requires married couples to adopt the same surname. The Supreme Court was forced to reconsider this law after protests by five Japanese women who claim the law is unconstitutional and violates the civil rights of married couples. They sought damages of £33,000 (6 million yen) for emotional distress and practical inconvenience of taking their husband’s name. Japan is one of few industrialised countries where it is illegal for married couples to have different surnames. This reflects the traditional view in Japan that marriages are unions between families rather than individuals.


The existence of this law has led to some couples not registering their marriages - notably Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima and her partner. However, this causes legal complications especially over parental and inheritance rights; similar to the issues faced by those who choose to not marry in UK and instead co-habit. In essence the law is a form of discrimination against women. The law does not specify which person’s name must be adopted. However, in 96% of cases, women take their husband’s surname.


I understand the importance of tradition to society, but not all traditions last forever nor should do so – especially when they entrench discrimination. Marriage is a concept that should be free and flexible, incorporating the principles of each couple. Indeed, marriage is simply a commitment by two people to spend their lives together. Trivial traditions should not repress that freedom.


I see my full name as crucial to my personal identity. My parents thought very carefully about my name – it reflects my ethnic heritage. I do not link this name to my unmarried status; it is simply part of who I am and will always be as a person. I inherited it from my parents like I did my physical appearance and personality traits. Thus, I do not think that anyone should force me to change it. It is interesting that many men want their wives to adopt their surname, whilst it is inconceivable for the man to change his surname. This implies the residual inferiority of a woman in marriage, at least in attitudes.


Generations, or at least important segments of them, need to break with the traditions and attitudes of their predecessors in order for society to progress. Hopefully public opinion in Japan and elsewhere will shift in order to strengthen women’s rights in marriage. Freedom of choice in this respect is crucial.


Being an egalitarian liberal, I don’t think that anyone, man or woman, should be forced, by law or pressure of familial obligation, to change their surname. There is no need for it; the act of marriage itself is a more than sufficient act of your commitment to one another. If you want to get married then you should be allowed to do so and keep your full name in tact. I see my name as integral to my personal identity; a general identity that will remain regardless of my marital status. Obviously, some may choose to change their surname – but this is at least an individual choice, free from the cultural imposition of the state or family. I personally was born a Nawrat, and intend to die one.

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