The Name Change Game in Japan

The Name Change Game in Japan post image

About a month ago, the Japanese Supreme Court handed down decisions on two big cases for women’s rights. The first was the shortening of the time a woman has to wait to remarry (from 6 months to 100 days). The old rule was essentially in place to make sure that any child born between the two marriages would be the legal descendant of the former husband.

The other ruling blocked women from keeping their maiden names when getting married. In Japan, when two people get married, they must choose the same last name (either the man’s or woman’s). 96% of all marriages choose to use the man’s however. But the trend worldwide is moving more toward women being able to keep their maiden names.

At first glance, this might not seem like a major setback, but if women are known professionally by one name and then suddenly have to change names it could cause some problems and confusion. Of course, they can use whatever name they want professionally, their ‘married’ name is only for legal documents, which is why the court didn’t rule in their favor.

But, I can see this being a problem if a woman had a more traditional employer or boss who expects any married woman to quit their job and go off to do her duty in the home. If a woman could keep her maiden name, it would be possible to hide the fact that she was married. At least from her boss, insurance and other matters might be hard to cover up though.

It all boils down to a battle of someone being able to keep their individuality or sacrificing for the family. Traditionally speaking Japan is all about keeping the family together no matter what. It’s interesting to me that this case was heard by the Supreme Court, because it means times are changing.

Hi! My Name is Angus Pattie

In the States, and in a lot of other places, you can name yourself anything you want. There are more than a handful of people in the world that have made use of this freedom. There is even a Twitter account dedicated to unique names from around the world.

And when I want to the consulate to give my daughter her official US citizen name, they just gave us a blank form. I could have literally named her Barack Obama. Of course, that would be just be downright cruel for a variety of reasons.

Don’t Want to Change your Name, Marry a Foreigner!

By some weird quirk of the law, if a woman marries a foreigner, she doesn’t have to automatically change her name. This is because foreigners can’t be listed as a spouse in the koseki, or family registry in Japan. This koseki is used to determine descendants and other legal issues. They are listed as an ‘attachment’.

Because of this, a woman isn’t required to change her last name, since their is no need to determine descendants. Basically, when a woman gets married to a foreigner, she breaks off from her former family and becomes the head of a new family with her last name. She can then choose to change her name to match her husband’s (or not).

My wife, being the independent person that she is (or just plain lazy), hasn’t filed the paperwork to change her name. So, her legal name in Japan is her maiden name. However, in her passport she has my last name in parenthesis so that we can get through immigration a lot easier.

A consequence of this is that our daughter was born with my wife’s last name in Japan. However, her official US name includes my last name. In other words, she has pretty much two completely different names. Although her Japanese given name is based on her American name.

This whole mess might seem a little embarrassing and it can be sometimes. But, having a Japanese name in Japan is extremely useful because everything is setup for people to have 2 to 3 character given and family names. It is changing to be a little easier to have romanized names, but there are still some difficulties you have to deal with.

In the end, if Abe is really serious about giving women rights, he needs to make some more changes to help women have more independence. But, then again he might be too busy with his highly unpopular pet project of revising the constitution to focus on something that might actually help the economy he is supposed to be improving.

What do you Think?

Do you think husband and wife have to have the same last name to be considerate a unit?  Is it strange when husband and wife have different last names? Let me know in the comments.

Photo by Katri

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Bryan Kuro January 6, 2016, 12:24 am

    This news was really disappointing to me. Someone posted on Twitter the results of the judges and low and behold, only the female judges voted to change this old law. Not ONE of the male justices tried to see the situation through a female point of view and simply voted based on what they thought was right.

    I was pretty upset about it and now I’m trying to move past it. However, it’s just so sad that men in the courts are probably super old and set in their ways.

    Great post and thanks for sharing your experience as well as your wife’s situation.


    • Clayton MacKnight January 8, 2016, 1:57 pm

      Yeah, it seems like such a simple right that we take for granted in the States, but they don’t have here. The young generation doesn’t feel this way, only the old men. I hope I never become one of those types.

  • Chad January 8, 2016, 8:36 am

    I agree, names are a messy issue here. I’ve given up trying to wire money from the US to my Japanese bank account, because my Japanese bank always throws a hissy about my name. They literally didn’t have enough spaces in their system to hold it, even though it is short for an American name. So instead, I wire it to my wife, but since she has a different last name than me, HER bank throws a hissy even if we call in advance. They need proof we are married, every time.

    She’s kept her maiden name in both sides of the pond, but I have no idea what we are going to do about kids if they come. I agree that having a Japanese name in Japan makes life easier for many stupid reasons, but one would think having two different names will lead to all sorts of messes at some point.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 8, 2016, 1:59 pm

      That’s funny. At the moment, my wife and I just completed a translation project for a company overseas and have had to jump through some serious hoops to get paid for it. I think we will have to end up resorting to *gulp* Paypal to get paid. Such a pain. I mean at the very least they could adopt the IBAN system, such a pain to do business.

    • Bryan Kuro January 8, 2016, 2:28 pm

      Hey Chad, have you considered transferring money with Bitcoin? You could save money by avoiding a lot of the fees that companies usually take off the top when you’re transferring.

      For the US, sign up for Circle.

      For Japan, sign up for BitFlyer.

      You have to verify for both which is tedious, but worth it once you can quickly send money back and forth!

Leave a Comment

JLPT Boot Camp - The Ultimate Study Guide to passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test