Recently, five Japanese women sued the government for the right to keep their last names when they marry. The case was adjudicated in Japan’s supreme court, as two courts had already ruled against the women, and 52 percent of the population is reportedly against “the right to choose.” On Wednesday, Japan’s supreme court ruled against the women too.
Via the Guardian, the court did recommend the removal of another antiquated provision, one that prevents women from remarrying for six months after a divorce. In a funny half-measure, they recommended that a remarriage ban of merely 100 days would be fine. (There is of course no such remarriage ban for men—why would there be?)
But, Japan runs on a koseki system—a family-based registry, which means a patriarch-based registry—and the court has ruled that women will still have to take their family name, which is the man’s name 96 percent of the time. (Same-sex marriage is still illegal in Japan, leaving same-sex couples the terrific option of adopting one another for benefits, as they used to in America.) There is no actual provision mandating that it be the man’s name, though. And wouldn’t it be nice if Japanese grooms were able to learn a lesson from that 4 percent who are ahead of the curve—and joined their wives’ koseki, and took their goddamn last names?
As Japan only gave women the vote after World War II and passed their first workplace sexual harassment law in 2013, this is obviously a hypothetical; it’s not going to happen. But the hypothetical, when it comes to married and “maiden” names, is always telling. It’s no longer surprising in the United States when a woman keeps her last name, although the vast majority of women (around 80 percent) still take their spouse’s. Suggest, however, that an American man take his wife’s last name, and you’ll provoke the kind of look you’d get if you Photoshopped him into a diaper. Ha, ha, people will say. You’re so random, anyway, what were we saying....
A woman keeping her last name doesn’t create equality in society, but rather indicates it, and in individual cases, the practice works the same way. From the New York Times:
Women are more likely to keep their names if they are older, not religious, have children from a previous marriage or have an advanced degree and established career, according to data from the Google survey, the Times announcements and previous studies.
Of brides in The Times since 1990, 18 percent of those who were under 30 when they married kept their names, compared with 31 percent of those in their 30s and 44 percent in their 40s.
In other words, statistics show what’s already apparent from the nature of the question: brides keep their names in proportion to the degree that they are invested in their personal identities.
Of course, not all women who take their husbands’ last names are old-fashioned, conservative traditionalists who believe that their marriage subsumes their identity into their husband’s identity simply because of penis-based tradition—far from it; there are too many of them for that to be true—and there are many reasons why a woman would want to change her last name in general, i.e., what if your last name was Bigbutts or if your entire family history consisted of terrible drunks.
But, in my anecdotal experience, the many women who are invested in equal partnership and take their husbands’ last names anyway tend to produce a quick stream of justification: I want the whole family to have the same last name; my last name is my father’s anyway, isn’t it; I’m not trying to make a statement; what, am I going to give my kids my last name, too?
Yeah, sure, give your kids your last name—why wouldn’t you? And to that, people give you the diaper look again.
Japan is one of the few remaining industrialized countries to enshrine name inequality in marriage laws; it evinces an attitude that’s getting results. The country’s population is on the decline: via the Week, it peaked eight years ago at 128 million, and will fall to 87 million by 2060. Thirty-three percent of people think marriage is “pointless,” and as of a decade ago, 60 percent of women and 72 percent of men had never been married—up from 21 and 49, respectively, in 1975.
And who would want to get married if your country’s laws and practices preserve an inequality that feels shitty for both men and women?
Wages have stagnated since the 1990s, while housing prices have shot up. A young Japanese man has good reason to believe that his standard of living would drop immensely if he had to house and support a wife and children — especially considering that his wife likely wouldn’t be working.
In Japan, marriage usually ends a woman’s working career, even though most women are well educated. Once they have a child, women face strong social pressure to quit their jobs and assume very traditional roles, serving both the husband and the child. Mothers who want to keep working are stigmatized and usually find that employers won’t hire them. Child care is scarce and expensive, while Japan’s brutal work culture often demands that employees work more than 50 hours a week. Japanese husbands aren’t much help either — they spend an average of one hour a day helping with the children and household chores, compared with three hours for husbands in the U.S. and Western Europe. “You end up being a housewife with no independent income,” bank worker Eri Tomita told The Observer. “It’s not an option for women like me.”
So the Eri Tomitas of the world don’t get married: they stay shy of an institution that, in every way and even in the most well-off cases, will favor men over women every time.
I’m a devout believer in the church of Do What You Feel; if I ever get married, I’m going to change both of our names to Erin and Aaron Spacemuseum. But it’s depressing that that description of marriage in Japan, with its centuries-backward laws, is so close to the reality of marriage in the U.S.; it’s depressing that so many intelligent women will fervently defend taking their husband’s name when you can be sure that their husband would never do the same when it came to them. It’s depressing that this proposition—that men should take their wives’ last names—could be legally mandated for centuries before there was anything like lineal parity, and that hypothetical interchangeability is all we’re talking, and yet it still sounds resolutely like a joke.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Getty