Media watch: What’s missing from the discussion of elective names for married couples?

Seiko Noda

Late last month, Seiko Noda, the state minister in charge of gender equality, remarked that a recent Cabinet Office survey to gauge the public’s opinion on allowing couples to retain separate surnames after marrying was misleading. The survey results seemed to indicate that fewer people supported elective surnames than in the past. In Japan, when two people marry, legally they must have the same name, and can choose either spouse’s. In more than 95 percent of the cases they choose the man’s. However, since the 1990s, when a bill was first proposed to allow married couples to retain their names if they choose to do so, certain elements in the government have always maintained that allowing such freedom to choose would undermine traditional family values. And so far they have prevailed.

Though Noda is a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is against elective names, she has always been in favor of allowing couples to choose, mainly because she has a personal interest in the matter. As the adopted heir of a prominent political dynasty, she feels she has to retain her name in order to carry her family’s legacy into the future, and has done so in all her connubial relationships. Consequently, she voiced suspicion that even the Cabinet she belonged to was somehow gaming the survey in order to get the results it wanted, which is to show wavering support for separate names. With successive surveys over the years, the support rate had steadily climbed–that is, until this one. What changed?

As the Asahi Shimbun reported on March 25, 5,000 people aged 18 and older were contacted at random to take the survey. They were asked to choose their preference from three statements. The first said that the government should “maintain” the present system of mandating the same surname for married couples. The second said that the government should maintain the current system, but also legally allow people to “use” their birth names. The third statement said that the government should establish a system that allows married couples to have dual surnames legally. The problem with the survey, according to Noda and others, is that the order and thrust of the statements had been changed from those of previous surveys. The government claims that it changed the methodology to make the statements easier to understand, but by inserting the question allowing for the “use” of birth names before the question about legally allowing for separate names, respondents may have been confused by their meaning. Moreover, as Noda pointed out to Asahi, 45 percent of the respondents were 60 or older, and to them the question of separate surnames is not really relevant any more. The survey should have been limited to those “who are going to marry in the future,” she said, meaning younger people. 

The second of the three statements in the latest survey is misleading because, as it stands, many married women, for instance, still use their so-called maiden names in their professional lives, even though legally their surnames are likely their husband’s. It’s not as if the situation posed by the second statement is a new option, though some may have chosen it thinking it was. (Some employers allow workers to use different names than the ones on their family register, but many, such as various public entities, don’t.) In any case, its position as the second choice in the survey may have led to fewer people choosing the third statement, which calls for legalizing separate surnames. As it turned out, only 28.9 percent of respondents chose the third statement, whereas its equivalent was chosen by 42.5 percent in the previous survey. Of the three statements, the one that got the most votes on the latest survey was the second, at 42.2 percent. When Asahi did its own telephone survey a year ago, with only two staements to choose from, 67 percent approved of legalizing elective surnames while 26 percent opposed it.

As has been mentioned in this space before, the main reason for the government’s insistence on maintaining a system that mandates same names for married couples is to preserve the family register (koseki) system, which sets the nuclear family as the basic unit of Japanese society. Separate names would require changing the koseki system and effectively make the basic unit of society the individual. The main trouble with the media’s handling of the issue is that it falls into the government’s trap of making separate names seem like an either/or question: Either couples have the same name or they have separate names. In truth, the question is over choosing what names the couple wants to use. It’s assumed, even by advocates of separate names, that if elected names were legalized, the vast majority of couples would still choose to have the same name. Only a small minority would choose separate names. It’s not a matter of mandating one or the other, but rather allowing couples to choose what they want. And since a name is perhaps the most personal thing anyone can possess, it should be a right. 

The problem with Japan’s family register system is that it is considered by both its supporters and detractors to be unique, so it’s difficult to find analogues in other countries for the sake of comparison. Actually, it isn’t unique, and, in fact, there is one country that had the koseki system and then did away with it: South Korea, which adopted it when it was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945 and retained it after achieving independence until 2008, when it was finally abolished. In a very useful article that appeared in the February issue of President Woman, Junko Ito, a Japanese woman who has lived in Korea for more than 20 years, outlined the history of the Korean koseki system, showing how Korean society, as it evolved from a strict Confucian system prior to Japan’s annexation through its status as a colony, a postwar dictatorship, and then a hard-won democracy, came to understand how the family should be addressed by the state, and eventually decided to make the individual citizen the basic social unit.

The complicating factor when comparing Japan’s koseki system to Korea’s is that traditionally in Korea separate names for married couples were mandated, owing to something called bon-gwan, or region-bound “clans” to which Koreans belonged at one time. The law prohibited members of the same bon-gwan from marrying, and in order to clarify this practice the partners in marriage keep their surnames after their union. However, as Ito points out, mandating separate names did not afford women an equal position in family life. All children must take the name of their father, including girls, and though the woman in marriage retains her name, she is still subservient in her new husband’s home, in accordance with Confucian teachings. 

What the Japanese military did when they colonized Korea was introduce the head-of-household system, which essentially codified the Confucian ethic with regard to patriarchy, even though Japan’s system is not strictly Confucian but rather based on Emperor worship in that the koseki is the emperor system in miniature: The head of household holds sway over all members of the family, just as the Emperor holds sway over all Japanese people. But when Japan compelled all Koreans to enter into koseki they recognized the cultural importance of the bon-gwan system and allowed families to retain separate names, so when advocates of the koseki system in Japan say there is no precedent for separate names, they are neglecting Korea, where the koseki existed along with separate names. Same names were only mandated for five years, starting in 1940, when Japan compelled a change in the Korean civil code saying that all Korean subjects change their names to Japanese ones and apply this change to the koseki. (Previously, many Koreans did take Japanese names, but it wasn’t until 1940 that they were forced to do so by local law.) So between then and 1945, when Japan surrendered, same names were mandated in Korea as well. 

After the war, Korea decided to retain the koseki system but with separate names, and according to Ito in the 1950s many women lobbied to get rid of it, understanding how the head-of-household system necessarily discriminated against women. It wasn’t until 1989 and the beginning of true democratic reform that the head-of-household system was revamped, reducing the head-of-household’s mandate while keeping the household intact through the koseki. Essentially, the change meant that each member of the household had control over their own destiny, but, administratively at least, the household was still the basic unit of society. The man is still at the top of this list, with the wife’s (separate) name and those of the children (using his name) still underneath his. In 1997, a Korean court deemed the bon-gwan proscription unconstitutional, and the next year, a more liberal administration created a ministry for women’s issues, which was headed by a prominent female activist. A different administration proposed abolishing the head-of-household system in 2002, describing it as a holdover from the colonial era. Ito describes how the topic was so hot that two television drama series about single mothers, which delved deep into the problems of the koseki system, became huge ratings hits. In March 2005, revisions to the civil code abolished the head-of-household system. Moreover, it was no longer illegal to marry someone from the same bon-gwan after South Korea implemented a strict anti-incest law that defined which blood relationships were prohibited from marrying. Finally, in 2008, the koseki itself was abolished and all registration is now administered on an individual basis.

The point Ito is trying to make is that when Korea achieved at least a semblance of real democracy in 1989, it became obvious to anyone with any close understanding of the matter that the head-of-household system, not to mention the koseki itself, would eventually be discarded. The only thing that would prevent this from happening was the mindset of the public. Despite the common wisdom that the koseki system is unique, when I’ve often mentioned to Japanese persons that there is nothing like the koseki in other countries they look at me with disbelief. The system is so ingrained in public life that it’s difficult to imagine life without it, and the same thinking held sway in Korea, which is why progressive-thinking players knew they would have to work hard to get rid of it. There were no half-measures. It would have to be abolished outright, especially if women were to achieve social parity. In fact, one of the arguments that Korean defenders of the koseki system used, according to Ito, was that it guaranteed that men and women had the same social status, just like in Japan. This argument was hot-wired to the concept that Korea, like Japan, operated on family-oriented traditions, so administrative practices based on individuals were culturally inappropriate. Conservative elements in the government insisted that Korea return to its Confucian roots, before Japan colonized the peninsula. But people realized that Confucian tenets were at least as harmful as what the Japanese had forced on the country. In the 1970s and 80s, it was the Confucian principle that only males could extend the family bloodline which led to a wave of abortions and adoptions of female offspring. What’s impressive about what happened after the turn of the century is that it was the South Korean government that forced change and purged its actions of Confucian ideology, but they abolished the koseki system as well. As Ito points out, democracy really did prevail.

The question poses itself: Why hasn’t the Japanese media ever referenced the Korean model when reporting on the separate name controversy in Japan, which has been an issue for 30 years? The most obvious answer is that Japanese reporters likely don’t think outside of the koseki box. A common word used to describe marriage is “nyuseki,” which literally means to “enter a koseki.” The idea is that a woman enters the koseki of the man she marries, but the term is a misnomer. In actuality, when two people marry in Japan, both are removed from the kosekis of their parents and form a new koseki together. In Korea, however, when kosekis were used, the woman really did enter the family register of her husband’s family as a kind of addendum, and it is this aspect of the system that made people realize how regressive it was since it violated the letter of the Korean constitution, which guaranteed the equal status of all citizens. Of course, children’s status is still a messy matter in Korea because of the separate name situation. Koreans, when they marry, must indicate at the time which name all their future children will assume, a regulation that must cause all sorts of confusion and grief for newlyweds (and which is often a leitmotif in modern Korean family dramas). 

So in this regard, is Japan more advanced in terms of gender parity? After all, when two people marry, they form a new family register in which both are nominally on equal terms. However, Japan still adheres to the head-of-household protocol, which automatically means one person, the one whose name is at the “top of the list” (hittosha), is seen to be more important, at least administratively. Whether the public sensibility informed by the koseki system has anything to do with the perception or reality that women in Japan have yet to achieve equal status with men is a worthy subject of discussion, but at the very least, the issue of elective separate names would seem to be a no-brainer in the 21st century. 

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