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Japan upholds archaic marriage laws

16th December 2015
Japan upholds archaic marriage laws

This week Japan had the chance to consider two of its long-standing marriage laws this week, when the Supreme Court will consider claims brought by five women.

The two issues at stake are the ban on women marrying for six months after divorce – this is a stipulation that does not apply to men – and the requirement that spouses have the same surname.

The first of these laws derives from the desire to determine parentage of children born as a marriage is breaking down, in an age before DNA tests. The second stems from the Japanese social system called koseki: a method of family registry that goes back to Japans feudal family system. That feudal system was abolished in 1948 but these two laws remained.

The five women argued the laws are unconstitutional and violate married couples civil rights.

On Wednesday 16 December, the Supreme Court ruled that the six-month marriage ban for women should be shortened to 100 days, but it upheld the requirement for both spouses to have the same name.

The former is a very minor victory, and it will help women who have children with a new partner shortly after their previous marriage had dissolved. But the latter is a major blow for womens rights.

One of the women bringing the suit, translator Kaori Oguni, told The Guardian:

By losing your surname … youre being made light of, youre not respected … Its as if part of your self vanishes.

Although there is no legal requirement that the woman must take the mans name as opposed to the other way round, in practice it is the woman who changes her name in 96% of marriages.

Those opposed to the womens lawsuit – conservative politicians and social commentators – felt that a change in this requirement would undermine the cohesion of the traditional family unit. But, as Ogani continued: If changing surnames is so easy, why dont more men do it?

According to a poll by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, 52% of the Japanese population believed that couples should have the right to choose what name each spouses should have, while 34% opposed the change.

As it currently stands, many Japanese working women are forced to operate under dual identities: one for the workplace and one for the home. This doesnt look set to change anytime soon.

For a round-up of marital naming laws and customs around the world, the BBC has done a report on this, which can be read here.

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