TOKYO (Reuters) - When Akiko Orita decided not to register her marriage in 1998 to keep her maiden name, it was supposed to be a temporary measure until Japan’s civil code changed to allow married couples to keep separate surnames.
Twelve years later, her marriage is still unregistered and the topic is a hot-button issue ahead of Sunday’s upper house election.
“I wanted to keep my name because I like it. It did not seem logical to have to change it,” said 35-year-old Orita, an assistant professor at Keio University.
“We consider ourselves a family, but those opposed to it (amending the civil code) tell us that we are destroying the family system. I think that is strange.”
While fiscal reform including doubling the 5 percent sales tax is the focus of the poll, some parties are wooing support from a conservative base by zeroing in on the name controversy.
The debate heated up after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which advocates letting married couples keep separate names if they wish, took power last year and fanned expectations that the government would submit a bill to amend the civil code.
Faced with opposition from a coalition ally, the government’s plan to submit a bill stalled, and the DPJ omitted the issue from their manifesto.
Both the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party and the DPJ’s tiny coalition ally the People’s New Party (PNP) said in their campaign platforms they are against letting married couples have separate names, while the Social Democrats support it.
Japan is the only country in the Group of Eight major industrialized nations that requires married couples to register under the same surname.
The rule is tied to Japan’s traditional concept of the family institution, which in the past ensured properties, businesses, and surnames were passed on to men within the family unit.
Those against changing the civil code say it’s a matter of family unity and are wary of the impact on children’s identities and a possible increase in divorce if the law is amended.
“There are many people who have traditional values and who see an important meaning in Japan’s family system,” said Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Men are allowed to take their spouses’ name, but it is rare in practice. More married women juggle two names — their maiden name at work and their registered name on legal documents.
Some, like Orita, avoid the state’s blessing in order to keep their maiden name legally as well as professionally, though they face hurdles such as inheriting spouses’ property.
In a 2006 government survey, 36.6 percent said the law should change so that married couples can keep their maiden names if they wish, down 6 points from a 2001 poll but 4 points higher than a 1996 poll. But 35 percent said married couples should have the same last name and there is no need to change the law.
But it may be a while until those like Orita can register marriages while keeping different names.
The DPJ is unlikely to win a majority in the election and may need to partner with parties who oppose the change. Even within the DPJ, members are split over the issue.
Orita is resigned. “At this point, I’ve half given up,” she said. “It’s hard to reach an agreement in the society over issues involving different values.”
Editing by Sugita Katyal