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Is This Law Perpetuating The Very Real Gender Inequality In Japan?

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It wasn’t just my OCD that was offended by the posters for the latest Brad and Angelina film, By The Sea. As a person, I identify as a feminist. As a woman, I also harbour somewhat secret hopes of one day getting hitched. Look close enough at the promotional artwork for By The Sea and find that while Brad’s name appears as “Brad Pitt”, Ange is credited as "Angelina Jolie Pitt" – which leads me to wonder why he didn't choose to take her name, or why she didn't just remain Jolie.

Yesterday, Japanese courts decided to uphold a 19th century law that requires all married couples in Japan to have the same surname, which doesn’t sound too problematic until you consider that while the law does not stipulate which name married couples should take, in practice women take their husband’s name in 96% of cases, according to The Japanese Times. Women in Japan were traditionally able to retain their maiden names after marriage, until 1898 when the law came into place as part of a feudal family system where all women and children came under control of the male head of the household. The system was abolished in 1948 – but the surname law has been retained.

Five Japanese women campaigned in the courts in 2011, seeking damages of 6million yen (£33,000) for the emotional distress and inconvenience of being forced to take their husband’s name. Conservative politicians who opposed the motion argued that it might damage the traditional family unit. One of the plaintiffs, Kaori Oguni said: “If changing surnames is so easy, why don’t more men do it? The system is one that says, basically, if you’re not willing to change, you shouldn’t be getting married.”

It feeds into a larger discourse that is taking place in Japan about institutionalised sexism just as the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, pushes for a greater role for women in the workplace to aid economic growth. Ahead of the ruling yesterday, Masaomi Takanori, a constitutional scholar, told NHK public television: “Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order and the basis for social welfare.”

There are other laws in place that impede women’s autonomy within the marriage transaction, such as the law which banned women from remarrying until six months after a divorce in case there is confusion over the paternity of any children conceived shortly before or after the divorce. Critics who argue that the law is outdated, have mounted their defence on facts – given the accuracy of modern pregnancy and paternity testing. In a minor victory, however, the country’s top court said that a second legal provision preventing women from remarrying for six months after they divorce violates the constitution’s commitment to gender equality. However, according to Kyodo News, the court said that a remarriage ban on women of up to 100 days was reasonable.

It’s absurd to consider that lawyers and protesters who gathered outside the Japanese supreme court yesterday were lobbying against laws dating from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) but it’s indicative of how Japan’s anachronistic legal systems still impact their civil codes of conduct. The UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women has also called on Japan to revise the laws.
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