At first, it seemed as if everything was going fairly well. Opinion polls have shown that 43% of the Japanese support the idea of couples being able to choose their surnames after marriage. But unfortunately, it all ended there. On December 16, 2015, Japan’s Supreme Court delivered a verdict on the matter, considering it a potential violation of human rights. The court did not find any violations, but ruled that the current requirement for married couples to have the same last name was in line with Japan’s constitution.
It would seem that the conservatives won. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if the ruling was accepted without a fight. In fact, it triggered further debate on the issue. Six years later, in March 2021, the Okayama Prefectural Assembly in central Japan allowed its citizens to choose whichever surname they preferred. The decision was particularly welcomed by the LGBT community, because, once adopted at the national level, it would help eliminate much of the bureaucratic paperwork they were having to deal with.
However, the Japanese establishment has a very different attitude. Even Tamayo Marukawa, the 50-year-old head of the Women’s Affairs Office of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said she was against the idea of women keeping their maiden names after marriage. By the way, it is only in the Diet that she is known as Marukawa – her maiden name, which she uses as a pseudonym. Her official last name, Otsuka, is her husband’s name, which she adopted as required by Japanese law. In June 2021, Japan’s Supreme Court addressed the issue again, ruling once more that the right of each spouse to a separate surname was unconstitutional.
Japanese people’s approach to resolving family issues has formed over centuries of Confucianism. One of its central ideas is that the woman exists to perform two basic functions: to be a good wife and a wise mother. Even sexual intercourse with a husband was allowed only for the purpose of conceiving a child – after that, this function was performed by trained professionals.
A woman, in the Confucian worldview, is a person destined to function inside the house, not outside, and it’s very difficult to dispel this belief, which seems to be innate to a lot of Japanese people. Even the bourgeois revolution of 1868 failed to bring any change to women’s issues in Japan. It wasn’t until 1947, when a new constitution was adopted, that the country saw some radical improvement. The two new articles of the 1947 constitution, No. 14 and No. 24, introduced equal rights for men and women and codified women’s civil rights.
Beate Sirota Gordon, the daughter of a Russian immigrant raised in Japan who worked for Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur’s occupation army and was the author of the two new articles, later recounted with bitterness:
“Historically, Japanese women were treated as movable property. They were property which could be sold and bought on a whim.”
A lot has changed in the 75 years since the adoption of Japan’s constitution. And the change did not always come in a smooth or straightforward manner. The situation we are witnessing in Japan today – the difficult economic situation, the aging population (Japan having one of the world’s oldest), labor migration problems triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, growing dissatisfaction with gender inequality within Japanese society, and the rising number of women who don’t want to “shine” just because they are women – could bring about another breakthrough in the realm of female empowerment. It is unlikely that this leap towards gender equality would set an Olympic record, but there is no doubt that the leap is coming.
A few years ago, a Japanese lecturer asked her students at a business etiquette seminar held at Moscow State University’s Japanese Center whether it should be a man or a woman who is first to enter the elevator.
“A woman, of course!” – the audience was unanimous. The sensei was genuinely surprised. “I have never seen so much respect for ladies. In Europe and the US, I usually get the answer that it doesn’t really matter. But why the woman and not the man?” There was a slight hesitation, then a young Russian man said, “In case the cable snaps and the elevator falls down.” The lecturer paused for a second and replied: “Go to Japan. They’d be happy to have you.”
Roman Makhonin, a book author and a journalist who explores Japan’s culture and history.
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