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Japan split over maiden names and foreign suffrage

The Democratic Party of Japan, which swept to power last year, had planned to give women the freedom to choose their married name — but that move is running into opposition.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Happily for Yoko Sakamoto, she didn't have to argue with her husband — also a Sakamoto — about whose last name they would use when they got married.

Not that the 47-year old civil rights activist would have had much of an option: In Japan, the law requires only one surname per family — customarily the man's.

"One's last name is a key part of one's self-identity," Sakamoto said. "It's wrong that any of us by law have to change surnames that we've used all our lives, and it is always the women who put up with the burden."

The Democratic Party of Japan, which swept to power last year, planned to give women the freedom to choose their married name — a move supported by those who say the tradition undermines their independence and can interfere with their career. But the party has run into opposition from their conservative rivals who are making it a campaign issue in Sunday's key upper house elections.

The Democrats promised a progressive agenda when they formed a government, ending 55 years of nearly unbroken conservative rule. The party began working on two bills: one that would allow married couples to keep separate surnames and another that would permit Korean permanent residents in the country to vote in local elections.

But preparations for both bills have stalled.

Conservative politicians accuse the Democrats of pushing a radical agenda that would wreck Japanese family traditions and even weaken its national security by granting the vote to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans and Taiwanese — without Japanese citizenship — and possibly other nationals too.

Such changes "would destroy the country," warned Sadakazu Tanigaki, leader of the former ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which despite its name is conservative.

While the debate over possible tax increases to tackle Japan's burgeoning deficit has dominated the campaign for this weekend's election, these secondary issues could also sway some voters.

And a poor showing at the polls could make it hard for the Democrats to move ahead on either bill.

Japan is the only Group of Eight nation that requires married couples to have the same family name. Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea also allow married women to have different surnames than their husbands.

A growing number of Japanese women, including those who have advanced in corporate and academic ranks, want the same right. Many already use their maiden names as aliases at work.

"The Democrats' rule could be our tiny window of opportunity," said Sakamoto, co-leader of the activist group mNet, which supports changes to Japan's civil code. "The question is whether we can tolerate diversity and create a society that equally treats people with different lifestyles and nationality, including married couples with different surnames and foreign residents."

But that window may already be closing.

Strong opposition from the ruling party's tiny coalition partner, the People's New Party, has stalled moves to submit the bills in parliament and the Democrats have quietly removed them from their list of campaign promises. The smaller party claims that allowing women to retain their maiden names could undermine family unity and even cause more divorces.

"I don't understand the mentality of couples who marry to be together but prefer separate surnames," said Shizuka Kamei, leader of the People's New Party. "Do we want to see door signs showing various surnames written on them at each home?"

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, however, said recently she still plans to submit the already-drafted maiden names bill for parliamentary debate later this year.

The current system "often one-sidedly imposes burdens on women, inconveniences their social activities, or causes the loss of their identity," Chiba said. "I must say it poses a problem with the fundamental equality of men and women."

Only in rare cases in Japan a couple uses the wife's surname, particularly if she is an only child and there is pressure to carry on the family name, or if it benefits them financially.

Last August, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women urged Tokyo "take immediate action to amend the Civil Code" and drop the one-surname requirement, calling the provision "discriminatory."

Akiko Orita has been married for more than 10 years, but because she did not change her name at marriage, she is classified in town hall records as "unregistered wife" of her husband, Yusuke Doi, who also supports the cause.

"I don't want to have to change my name," said the 35-year-old assistant professor at Keio University. "Everyone should have a right to choose."

The Democrats have also sought to give the right to vote in local elections to 420,000 mostly Korean permanent residents in Japan and some Taiwanese. Most are descendants of wartime slave laborers who were forcibly brought to the country during the 1910-45 Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula.

Despite being born in Japan, living here for decades and paying taxes, many such ethnic Koreans, known as "zainichi Korean," chose not to take Japanese citizenship to retain their sense of ethnic identity or as a form of protest at Japan having stripped their families of their nationality after World War II.

This disqualifies them from voting.

Democratic leaders say the proposed reform is intended to redress the suffering historically inflicted on the Koreans. Officials are still debating whether to include another 490,000 foreign permanent residents, mostly Chinese but also Brazilians, Filipinos and Peruvians, in the bill.

The bill has yet to be drafted but it has already stirred up fears among some Japanese that it might influence local votes to undermine Japan's national interest and security. Some say Koreans and Chinese residents may move en masse to constituencies overseeing disputed areas to influence decisions in a way that would weaken Japanese claims to several small islands between Japan and South Korea or China.

Right-wing activists and conservative lawmakers have repeatedly rallied in Tokyo against any moves to grant foreign residents suffrage, saying only those who have obtained nationality should be allowed to vote.

Government and media surveys show that the public is divided over both issues.

"Many Japanese may not be quite ready for a change," said Takao Toshikawa, an independent political analyst. "But a failure to pass the bills could mean the Democrats would lose voters, particularly young women" who have supported some of the party's more liberal policies.

Chieko Kotani, a 48-year-old homemaker, said she opposes a foreign suffrage bill because "the Chinese might take over" disputed small islands, but supports the legal use of maiden names, which she wished had been the law when she got married 15 years ago.

"I would have kept my maiden name, Kobayashi, which I still prefer," she said.