Can Japanese married couples have separate family names?

November 17, 2015 Juju Kurihara Culture, History, Society Tags: , , , , 1 Comment

In Europe, marriage is not the biggest issue. Many couples who live together for a long time and have children but they are not married. And this is not strange. But not in Japan.  
 
Once I accompanied as an interpreter with a British couple who needed to travel for their business. They brought their two sons. Every company we went, they frowned when they saw the couple´s business cards that different family names were written. Then they looked at the baby and looked at the couple´s left hands. Finally they asked, “Are you not married?” First, the British couple was surprised by this question and a few companies later, they were tired of it. “Why marriage is important?”, they asked me.
 
All Japanese female friends took their husbands´ family names when they got married. About 90% of married Japanese couples choose husbands´ name. Many says, “Because it´s much less complex”. In the current Japanese society, choosing wife´s family name seems to be troublesome. 
 
First, it is because Japanese family system is based on the house. This is a family structure which the husband is placed as the head of the house. Koseki (戸籍/ family resister) is introduced to control this family system. By having a person in the family resister, this person is recognized as a member of a family and becomes a part of the society.  
 
As long as the head of the house is a man, it´s difficult for a family to take the wife´s family name because that would suggest the head of the house is a woman. Expressions like, “Yome ni ku (嫁に行く/go to be a bride)” or “Yome ni morau (嫁にもらう/ receive as a bride)” show the concept of Japanese marriage. A woman enters the family of the husband as a wife. Since she joins another family where accepts her as a part of the family, she changes the name to their name. “Muko ni iku (婿に行く/ go to be a groom)” or “Muko ni morau (婿にもらう/ receive as a groom)” are also used but you will hear “muko yoshi (婿養子)” more often. And this means, a groom as an adopted son. This is the case a man enters the family of the wife. 
 
When a Japanese actor, Masahiro Motoki (Departures) got married to a daughter of a famous rock star and an actress as a muko yoshi, it surprised people a little.  
 
Recent decline of child birth rate makes men to enter the wives´ family more difficult because the man could be the only son in the house and he is expected to carry on the family and not to extinct. But if the wife is an only child, her family will disappear. Would the husband care? Having separate family name would be ideal and is a topic right now in Japan although it´s going very slow. 
 
Having the same family name is actually a quite new thing in Japan. It started in Meiji era (明治時代, -1867). Before that, common Japanese people didn´t even have a family name. (irqmegane link). Only the people who were in the higher class than samurai were allowed to have one and it was only 6% of the population. And they kept their own family names. 
 
Oh, old Japanese society respected gender equality! Well, not exactly. In feudal period, where the person came from was very important and women were not allowed to join their husbands´ family. Minamoto Yoritomo, Hojo Masako, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Hino Tomiko were the famous married couples and had separate names.  
 
Still, these names were defined by the historians. Before Edo period, even these powerful women officially introduced themselves “Uchi of XX shogun” for example. Uchi (内) is one of the ways to call wife in Japanese. (How do you say “my wife” in Japanese?)
 
In general, Japanese women wouldn´t introduce themselves with individual names. Before they were married they were always “a daughter” of someone and after getting married, they were “a/the wife” of someone. When they died, they were “a wife” of XXX, from the family of XXX. This is how it would be written on their tombstone.    
 
 
In the Meiji period, common people were permitted to have surnames. I was also a chaotic moment. (Japanese family names) Then the new Civil Code issued in 1898 forced women to adopt their husband´s name upon marriage, which was a total reverse from the earlier decision in 1876. 
 
This is how it was stated in the Civil Code.
 

 

 

「戸主及ビ家族ハ其家ノ氏ヲ称スル、妻ハ婚姻ニ因リテ夫ノ家ニ入ル」
 
It means, “The house master and his family is called by its family name. The wife is added to the husband´s house by marriage”.
 
 
In the modern Japan, many women have their career with socially important positions before getting married. Why they have to change the name because of marriage? Since 2001, women are allowed to use their maiden name as a common name but this doesn´t solve the problem because now women have to juggle two names as if they have two different personalities.  
 
Apparently Japan is one of few countries in the world where uses family registry. "The family registry identifies couples and their children as one unit. And this unity is what protects the welfare of the children”. (The Japan Times)
 
This couple, an Upper House lawmaker, Mizuho Fukushima and Yuichi Kaido, has decided not to get married. But as she says, it isn´t an easy decision especially having a child without marriage. One parent child can be discriminated at school. Or the mother may be discriminated.
 
As long as Japanese registry is based on the family, separate family name is not so realistic because that would lead abolishment of the family registry where a man is the head of the house. Why can´t women be the head of the house? And can the couple decide the child´s surname without any hassle? 
 
Perhaps this is a sign for Japan that it´s time to look into gender equality. This old family system works as long as the women totally depend on their husband´s income and there are still many in the modern Japanese society. But it would be good if there are choices. 
 
 
 
References: 
History of the family name of married couples : http://www.bessei.com/history.htm
Separate family name before Edo period : http://blog.livedoor.jp/sumiin/archives/4357315.html
 
 
 
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1 Comment

  1. James 1 year Reply

    Things do seem to be changing, particularly as the influence from the Western cultures increases and the younger generations take on board what is happening in the rest of the World. It will be slow going and may take a few more decades but it will happen I’m sure.

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