Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Japan Upholds Surname Law In Name Of Culture


We are going to shift our attention now to another country where women are pushing against cultural convention. If you're a married couple in Japan, you are required by law to have the same last name. Critics who say the law is sexist had been trying to get it overturned. But this past week, Japan's Supreme Court upheld the law that they say reflects an important part of Japanese culture. NPR's Elise Hu has been watching the story unfold from her base in Seoul. And she joins me now. Hey, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there, good morning.

MARTIN: Just to recap, married couples have to have the same name. But that doesn't preclude men from changing their names to the women's name, right? But presumably, that's not going to happen. This is about requiring women to change their name.

HU: That's right. This law was enacted more than a hundred years ago as part of a pretty feudal family system. The family name essentially had to be the same because women and children came under the control of a male head of household. So that's why it requires Japanese couples to choose a single last name. The law itself doesn't specify whether it has to be the husband's name or the wife's. But The Japan Times actually points out that in the last 40 years, 96 percent of Japanese couples opt for the husband's last name. I actually do happen to have a source, Ito-san, whose husband took her last name. But as the numbers show, it's really quite rare.

MARTIN: Yeah. So who brought the suit forward? And this is something that's been around for a long time, so why now?

HU: Well, three separate women brought this case on the grounds that this law just infringes on personal dignity. One plaintiff made a pretty emotional argument actually after the ruling came down that her name really isn't something she should give up because it's a huge part of her identity. She was quite emotional after losing this case.

MARTIN: We said in the intro - and you pointed out - that the court said this law can't be changed because it's an integral part of Japanese culture. What does that mean?

HU: Yeah, the chief justice actually wrote in upholding this law that the practice is, quote, "deeply rooted in Japanese society." And critics say that's actually the problem because Japan's facing this gut check when it comes to the role of women in its society. You have Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognizing this. He made something called womenomics (ph) which is essentially trying to encourage more women to enter the workforce as part of his signature economic strategy, which you might have heard about, Abenomics (ph). That has helped get more women working in Japan but not more women in leadership positions. In fact, just last week, the Gender Equality Bureau in Tokyo came out with a new target for women in leadership roles. Originally, under Abenomics, that goal was to get 30 percent women representation in management positions. Realizing that they couldn't hit that target, that target has now been slashed to 7 percent.

MARTIN: Wow, big change. NPR's Elise Hu, reporting from Seoul, South Korea. Thanks so much, Elise.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.