Family, japanese, Japanese Culture, Women

A Rose by any Other Name: Japanese Conservatives and the Question of Retaining One’s Family Name

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Submission by Assoc. Prof. David Chapman

In many countries around the world, including Australia, it is commonplace for a woman to take on her husband’s surname after marriage. As the ABC reported last year, recent estimates suggest that approximately 80% of women choose to change their name after marriage. However, many are turning to away from traditional expectations, with some brides keeping their own name, choosing hyphenated names, and some husbands/spouses choosing to take on their wife’s name.

In Australia, expectations around a woman’s choice to change her name after marriage are usually limited to her family and immediate social circle. It may be more acceptable to do so in certain social contexts than in others. As name changes are a “matter of custom, not law“, there is no government intervention to keep track of, nor enforce this practice in any way.

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But what about in other countries? Assoc. Prof. David Chapman (UQ) and Dr. Etsuko Toyoda (University of Melbourne) recent paper published in Japanese Studies looked at this practice, known as fūfubessei (the retention of former family names after marriage) in Japan. In particular, they were interested in the way in which the Nippon Kaigi (a conservative group of intellectuals with close government connections) have attempted to drive agendas which promote “traditional family structure”, thus creating hostility towards fūfubessei.

As Chapman and Toyoda note, “the Japanese government has implemented numerous policies to control family norms and family values, most of which support the traditional nuclear family”. In Japan, unlike Australia, the law does weigh in on matters of name changes relating to marriage. In Japan, “Civil Code 750 stipulates that a married couple needs to choose the husband’s or the wife’s surname as their family name. Therefore, couples who wish to marry legally must decide on their married surname before registering their marriage”.

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Chapman and Toyoda go on to say that while Civil Code 750, as a law, “does not discriminate against women [directly], because a couple can choose either the husband’s or the wife’s family name” it does so indirectly due to Japanese social customs and beliefs.  This is because “due to the importance placed on patrilineal descent, combined with the continuing belief that a surname represents the name of a household amongst conservative sectors of the community, a wife is often pressured by the husband and/or his parents to change her family name.”

In this sense, fūfubessei stand in opposition to these normative family values, with conservative articles in the media and online going so far as to claim that they signal the “collapse” of Japan. Chapman and Toyoda note that the “sense of insecurity created by conservative pundits may be effective in influencing behaviour and in initiating acts of self-monitoring; it is also a factor that causes members of the public to observe and affect the behaviour of others” . This is achieved through scaremongering tactics such as claiming “that separate surnames in marriages will encourage divorce and will inevitably lead to the collapse of monogamy and legal marriage”.

Assoc. Prof. Chapman’s and Dr. Toyoda’s full article is available via the online edition of Japanese Studies here.

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