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Japanese women seek right to their own identity

TOKYO (AFP) ― Four Japanese women will go to court Monday to challenge a law that now compels almost all females to drop their maiden names and assume their husbands’ surnames when they marry.

The group ― plus one of their husbands ― want a civil code clause from the late 1800s declared unconstitutional and are seeking financial damages for their emotional distress at the Tokyo District Court.

The legal action comes after the centre-left government in power since 2009 failed in a push to revise the civil code because of stiff opposition from conservatives, including a minor ruling coalition partner.

It is part of a drive for greater gender equality in Japan, where women still face strong social pressure to leave their jobs when they marry to handle household chores and raise children.

But the country’s prolonged economic slowdown has prompted more women to continue their careers after marriage, often without changing their maiden names in the workplace, leading to growing calls for a dual-surname system.

One of the four women among the plaintiffs, Kyoko Tsukamoto, 75, said that having been forced to use her husband’s name officially for more than half a century had caused her “psychological trauma.”

”My name is a reflection of my self,“ said Tsukamoto, a retired school teacher who uses her maiden name for private purposes but must use her husband’s surname on legal documents, her passport and her credit card.

She declined to disclose that name to AFP. At her age, she said, “my days are numbered. I was born as Kyoko Tsukamoto, and I want to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto. That’s my wish.”

Tsukamoto, of Toyama in central Japan, said her husband disagreed with her desire to revise their marriage registration but she had chosen to join the case after lobbying lawmakers in vain for decades for a change in the rules.

The five plaintiffs are seeking a total of five million yen (about $70,000) in damages for mental distress.

They argue that the civil law violates the constitution, which guarantees equal rights for both spouses.

Article 750 of Japan’s Civil Law stipulates that married couples must share one surname ― in practice almost always that of the husband, although some men have assumed their wives’ names, often if the women come from noble families.

The law was enacted in 1898 when the country ― several decades after opening its doors to the outside world following two centuries of isolation ― for the first time required all citizens to have surnames.

Japan revised its constitution after World War II, but the article in question was only changed from the mandatory use of husbands’ surnames to a ban on the use of separate family names by a married couple.

Hopes for a revision of the code rose after the center-left Democratic Party of Japan took power in September 2009, ending half a century of conservative rule, and pushed for an immediate change.

The reform plan, however, withered suddenly as the DPJ’s small coalition partner, the People’s New Party, strongly opposes the move.

Its leader Shizuka Kamei said: “Why do we have to use different names in the one family? Why do you have to change it? This is part of our life and culture.”

Public opinion in Japan is sharply divided on the issue. In a recent government survey, 37 percent of respondents said they support a revision of the code, while 35 percent were against.

Sakura Uchikoshi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Japan is one of the few developed countries still sticking to a male-dominated name system, despite a U.N. recommendation to abolish the “discriminatory” code.

In 2009, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women warned that Japan had made little progress in gender equality, notably in the surname system.

“Since the political debate has been stalled, we hope that judicial action may force the issue,” Uchikoshi said.

Japanese courts can rule the civil code unconstitutional on individual cases and urge parliament to take action, but have no power to force the legislature to revise it, even if the case ends up in the supreme court.

Still, the plaintiffs hope a legal victory will advance their cause.

“Names must be chosen not by law but by individuals,” said Emie Kayama, another plaintiff, whose marriage document was rejected by local authorities when the couple asked to list two separate surnames.

“I think it’s wrong to think that couples are not in a marriage only because they have different surnames,” the 39-year-old freelance writer said.

“I don’t want my husband to change his surname because I don’t want him to feel the same way I have.”