Japan upholds 19th century law requiring married couples to share a surname

A Japanese wedding.
(Image credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan's supreme court ruled Wednesday that an 1896 law requiring married couples to share a surname is in fact constitutional, a decision many consider to be a major setback for women's rights in the country. The challenge to the law was brought by five women who sought damages for "emotional distress and the practical inconvenience of having to take their husband's name," The Guardian reports.

While the Japanese law does not necessarily require a woman to take her husband's name — a man could just as well take his wife's — 96 percent of the time women do end up adopting their spouse's surname, a pressure critics attribute to Japan's patriarchal society.

"Names are the best way to bind families. Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order and the basis for social welfare," constitutional scholar Masaomi Takanori explained to NHK.

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But one of the plaintiffs, Kaori Oguni, argued before the ruling, "By losing your surname…you're being made light of, you're not respected …. It's as if part of your self vanishes."

In a second legal provision, Japan's Supreme Court ruled that a law preventing women from marrying six months after divorce was a violation of gender equality; however, a ban of up to 100 days was ruled legal.

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