Getting it wrong on “bessei”

This weekend the Cabinet Office released the results of a survey showing that “fewer people” supported the idea of allowing married couples to use separate names. This issue has been simmering for at least a decade and every time a change has been proposed to the Civil Code allowing separate names, or bessei, it’s been shot down by lawmakers and pundits who say it will undermine the integrity of the family. From my reading of the subject, it’s clear that the problem is in the way the issue is framed. It seems a good portion of the public believes that the proposed changes would mandate separate names, when, of course, it’s completely different. It would simply let couples decide for themselves whether or not they want to take the same name. Here is an essay I wrote in 2004, when the change seemed more likely.
(Update below)

The so-called culture wars that have reignited in the United States over the legitimacy of gay marriages may influence this year’s presidential election despite a general feeling that there are more important issues. The problem with gay marriage as a social issue is that both sides work against their own interests by politicizing it. Conservatives who push for a constitutional amendment to ban it come across as anti-democratic and fanatical, while homosexual couples who flock to San Francisco to get legally hitched reinforce the idea of marriage as a state-approved arrangement.

Conservative extremism has forced gay people and their supporters to embrace the “sanctity” of marriage just as fervently as their opponents do. Gay marriage is seen as a progressive idea, but the institute of marriage is anything but progressive.

Marriage as a legal contract allows the state to regulate what goes on in the bedroom. This is basically the argument put forth by Sumiko Tanaka and Noboru Fukukita, a Japanese couple who live together without the state’s blessing and who have an 18-year-old daughter. Because the couple is not married, their daughter’s out-of-wedlock status was indicated in both their residence certificate (juminhyo) and family register (koseki). They have been fighting to have such designations changed since 1988, and while they’ve lost lawsuits in court, their efforts have moved the government to change these discriminatory terms.

When Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa announced last week that children born out-of-wedlock would be designated in family registers the same way that children born to married couples are designated, the couple expressed satisfaction, though nothing has really changed. Anyone who can read the family register will be able to tell if a child is born in- or out-of-wedlock. The ministry has made the terms less discriminatory, but the register, which codifies parent-child relationships, is unchanged.

Because America sees itself as part of a Judeo-Christian heritage, it can couch the marriage debate in moral terms even if it’s the authorities who decide who can marry. In Japan, the state is the only arbiter and the koseki the instrument of that arbitration. Immorality, therefore, is defined by the government, and has been since the Meiji era, when the koseki was established for the purposes of census and tax collecting.

Many Japanese couples, therefore, bridle at the idea that they need the state’s permission to cohabit and have children. Some people may think that the controversy over separate names (bessei) is based on the same thing, but it isn’t. In 1996, the Justice Ministry proposed revisions to the Civil Code that would allow married partners to retain separate surnames. As it stands, a married couple must decide on one name (98% take the husband’s).

Conservative politicians have repeatedly shot down any effort to allow separate surnames, saying that bessei undermines the integrity of the family, even though it’s clear that the vast majority of Japanese couples will opt for one name even if they can have separate ones.

The irony is that more couples would get married if they were allowed separate names. In last week’s issue of Aera, several couples were profiled who say they will marry once bessei is allowed. They have different personal and professional reasons for wanting separate names, but unlike Tanaka and Fukukita they are not against matrimony.

Their wish may soon come true. The Liberal Democratic Party has come up with its own version of a bessei bill that will let couples who want to keep separate names do so “as exceptions to the rule” through the courts. Grounds for separate names are limited to reasons having to do with professions and the “execution of family-related rituals.” (Thus, as Aera points out, “housewives with brothers” cannot keep their names.) The bill is not retroactive, which means if a married woman wants to get back her maiden name she has to divorce her husband first.

Conservative politicians believe that women who want to retain their names are “progressives,” but true progressives want to dismantle the whole family registration system, which reinforces patriarchal hierarchies. Women who want to keep their names still “want to marry and comply with the law,” according to Seiko Noda, the LDP member who wrote the new bessei bill. Even Tanaka and Fukukita have expressed satisfaction with the Justice Minister’s compromise, which does away with discriminatory words but leaves in place the terminology (eldest son, second son, etc.) that dictates heirarchy in a family.

Another irony is that the government’s insistence on legally defining the Japanese family may be a factor in the country’s dropping birthrate, which it says threatens the country’s future. Some people insist that when you remove the stigma of “illegitimacy” (hichakushi, which is still a legal term), the birthrate will go up. Forty percent of the children in France are born out of wedlock. In Japan it’s 1.7%.

But unmarried parents are somehow considered not as committed to family life as married parents are, which is why the current mini-boom in dekichatta marriages, meaning marriages that occur after the bride becomes pregnant, has led to a change in vocabulary. “Dekichatta” implies something unplanned, so NHK has started referring to such unions as omedeta-kekkon, or “congratulations marriages.” The change doesn’t make the parents more committed, but it makes everyone feel better. It’s all in the terminology.

Addendum, Feb. 21, 2013: Yesterday, Minako Saito, in her Tokyo Shimbun column, clarified the results of the abovementioned survey to point out that, contrary to the media analysis, they showed the public’s greater acceptance of bessei. Most media only focused on whether respondents supported or opposed bessei, but taken together, those two responses only accounted for 70 percent of the people surveyed. What about the other 30 percent? Apparently, there was a third option to the question: people could be allowed to keep their birth name while also taking the name of their partner. Twenty-four percent said this was OK, so taken together with the 35.5 percent who supported bessei, about 60 percent of respondents basically supported a revision of the law. More significantly, when asked what effect bessei would “on family ties,” 60 percent said there would be “no effect” while 36 percent said it would “weaken” them, which is the line taken by conservative politicians and pundits. Also 63 percent said that they believed “there are people who don’t get married because they don’t want to change their names” and 61 percent answered that children born out of wedlock “are treated unfairly” by the family registration system, while only 15.4 percent said such a situation “can’t be helped.” Obviously, the general public is more tolerant of bessei than the media is.

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