“I take this man to be my lawfully wedded husband”… Except when politics intervenes!

Fufubessei in Japan
What name will I get?

Although Japan is clearly far behind the west in Women’s lib, the emergence of Doi Takako in the 90s and several female politicians in Koizumi’s cabinet has helped push along the plight of the average Japanese woman. But sometimes there is more to these posts than meets the eye.

Over the past two years, Noda Seiko (one of the old school LDP politicians recently who was targeted by Koizumi’s famous 刺客 assassins) has pushed forward debate about 夫婦別姓 (fufubessei, the right of a husband and wife to have different surnames). The topic has received so much coverage in the press that many Japanese believe that a Japanese woman is now legally allowed to retain a different name to her husband post marriage. Although public sentiment supporting such a change in the law has been above 50% since 2000, ironically, we couldn’t be further from the truth today.

Historically, Japanese couples have been given the choice of which surname they want to keep. It is by no means compulsory to take the husband’s name and in fact, the number of Masuo-gensho (マスオ現象) and gyakutama stories you hear about, makes me think that perhaps accepting one’s wife’s surname is probably much more common than in the West. While there are many women who continue to use their maiden name at work for ease of use, this practice is referred to as a通称名 (tsushomei, pseudonym). To do this legally, one most go to the local ward/city office and register your maiden name as a 通称名. You still can’t use it in official government documents but you can use it on business cards etc. just as an actress might have a 芸名 (geimei, stage name).

So what is wrong with using a 通称? Why don’t you ask Takaichi Sanae’s (高市早苗) husband. When Takaichi decided to stand for parliament 20 years ago she politely asked her husband to divorce her. After building her grass-roots reputation with her maiden name, making a bid for parliament seemed too risky under a completely new name. Remember that, in Japan, you must correctly write the candidate’s entire name on the ballot paper in order to officially lodge your vote. One wrong stroke on a Kanji – such as the difference between 大田 and 太田 is enough to make your vote informal (that is why so many politicians register their names in Hiragana). Apparently she had tried her best to use a 通称名 but ran into too many barriers.

After going through the rigmarole of divorcing her husband on paper, Takaichi was one of the key proponents along with Noda Seiko for trying to legalize fufubessei (夫婦別姓法案). But perhaps she tried too hard? In the new Abe administration, Takaichi has been granted the newly created equal opportunity portfolio (男女共同参画担当大臣, Danjo Kyodo Sankaku Tanto Daijin). Mysteriously, after being made a minister in the new cabinet, Takaichi has gone suddenly quiet about her Fufubessei mission. The PM has not been afraid to comment in public scathingly about the idea:



“Japan should spend time worrying about the state of the family and not Fufubessei.”

With the support of outspoken Nagase Jin’en, (長勢甚遠) the minister for justice 法相, Abe seems to have been able to “buy” Takaichi with a sexy sounding portfolio. It wouldn’t surprise me if the issue doesn’t surface until Abe is out of government. I’m not saying that Japan is wrong in focusing on the state of families in Japan (in fact I support that), but I do think these two issues are mutually exclusive. I wonder what other interest groups Abe has been buying off in this way. It certainly doesn’t strike me as a great way to win the trust of the people in his first days of government.

6 thoughts on ““I take this man to be my lawfully wedded husband”… Except when politics intervenes!”

  1. Any idea why Japan doesn’t print the candidate names on the ballot paper and just get voters to tick a box? Seems like it would make things a lot easier for voters and reduce the number of invalid votes.

  2. A little known fact is that foreign-japanese marriages can be registered as fufubessei because foreigners don’t have a jyuminhyou. If you take that route, expect a lot of hassle proving you are married at city offices etc.

  3. Fingers, been married six days and I’m having a lot of hassle already. And in our case Mrs. Yellow took my name instead of going with the bessei option. Does it really get any worse with different names?

  4. Red,

    Thanks for this interesting article! I did what fingers suggested. I didn’t take my Japanese husband’s name and the Japanese gov’t couldn’t do anything about it!

  5. Last term at the university where I teach the students wrote persuasive essays on whether or not Japanese women should be allowed to freely choose their last name after marriage. No surprise, almost all of them wished they could! We also unearthed some interesting connections between the government`s desire to control people through the temple and family registery systems in both the Edo and Meiji eras.

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