Japan Should Let Married Women Keep Names, Business Lobby Says

(Bloomberg) -- Japan’s big business lobby urged the government to allow married couples to have separate surnames, saying current laws that effectively force married women to go by their husbands’ names for some purposes present a business risk.

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Keidanren, which is traditionally supportive of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said in a proposal unveiled Monday that the government should quickly present legislation allowing for surname choice to parliament.

“With women becoming more active and the number of female directors increasing, this name issue is not just a problem for individuals — it’s becoming a business risk,” said Masakazu Tokura, who heads the organization. Debate should begin as soon as possible, he added.

Tokura cited problems faced by women whose passports and credit cards don’t always match the names they use for business activities. Difficulty signing legal contracts has also been raised by some women.

Read: Women in Japan Fight for Their Identity — Starting With Their Name

The renewed pressure on the government comes months after a new series of lawsuits was filed to challenge the single-surname system, long criticized for perpetuating gender inequality. Although technically a man can take his wife’s surname, in reality it’s predominantly women who adopt their partners’ surnames, with 95% of married couples following this pattern in 2022. Yet court challenges have failed in the past.

Japan is the only country in the world that still enforces such a rule, according to Keidanren’s research, and it has failed to budge despite multiple calls from a United Nations committee on discrimination against women.

The issue contributes to the nation lagging its peers in gender equality. Japan ranked 125th out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report in 2023, the only Group of Seven country failing to make the top 100.

Yet data shows that society is broadly accepting of surname choice. A poll carried out by national broadcaster NHK in April found that 62% of respondents favored allowing the change and just 27% opposed it. Even among those aged 70 or over, those in favor outnumbered those against.

“A person’s family name, regardless of gender, is an expression of their character,” Keidanren said in the report. “For professionals, it means their career itself, the achievements, credibility, and personal connections they have built.”

--With assistance from Erica Yokoyama.

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