TOKYO — Marriage is about sharing a life. For women in Japan, it's also about laws demanding a shared last name — almost always the man's.
As a Japanese woman born and brought up in the United States, it was just one of the culture shocks I have experienced living in Japan since 2006.
Under Japanese law, married couples are not allowed separate surnames and have to choose one or the other. About 96 percent choose the man’s surname. (Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan.)
Now a debate over the surname codes has been reignited as part of a broader examination of entrenched sexism and “boys’ club” cronyism in Japan.
Japanese politicians have historically opposed couples having separate surnames, reasoning that it would “damage the unity of a family.”
The country’s new women’s empowerment and gender equality minister, Tamayo Marukawa, came under fire last month after it emerged that she joined a campaign with 49 other conservative ruling-party lawmakers, 43 of them men, to reject calls for change.
Asked 10 times by opposition politicians why she opposed women’s right to keep their surname, she merely said she had her “own opinion” on the subject.
Tomoko Takahashi, a professor of family law at Seikei University in Tokyo, called Marukawa an example of women who rise within the ruling elite by positioning themselves “in the men’s club, so they are not exactly keen to change the dynamic.”
But pressure is growing. An online opinion poll in November showed that 70 percent of people supported the right of married couples to have separate surnames, even if most would still choose to adopt the same name.
It’s not a small matter.
In the workplace, people often know their colleagues only by their family names. In an instant in 2019, I went from being Onishi-san (my family name) to Inuma-san (my husband’s last name).
The bureaucracy was bad enough. I had to change my surname on all official documents, including everything from bank accounts and passports to credit cards and online membership accounts. My married friends soon shared with me their how-tos for this “secretive ritual,” going through various institutions in the “correct” order, with our husbands barely aware of the whole laborious process.
Then came the issue of which surname I would go by in my work life.
My office manager at the time — two years before I joined The Washington Post — told me that I could go by my family name in the workplace. Many women do this. But the company said my email address would have to conform to my legal surname.
Imagining the confusion this would cause, I decided to use my legal married name. It felt like a loss and also like hitting the reset button on my career.
Former clients were confused by my new name. Others couldn’t recognize me when my new name came up in conversation.
Ayano Sakurai, a gender equality activist, organized a petition in December asking for a selective surname system that garnered more than 30,000 signatures in just five days. Married three years ago, Sakurai said changing her legal surname left her “feeling like zero and having to start afresh to build an entirely new identity.”
A new identity
Sadly, my marriage wasn’t the first time I had been forced to build a new identity.
Moving to Japan from my native New Jersey was a big dream to “find my roots.” After all, I had been told far too many times growing up to “go back to my country.”
After spending a decade always standing out as “the Asian girl,” it was ironic arriving in Japan at 17 to feel so culturally detached.
It was then that I realized for the first time that I wasn’t really “Japanese” in the sense of daily life.
The problem wasn’t the fact that I wasn’t fluent in Japanese. People assumed, however, that I knew the ins and outs of Japanese ways. I didn’t even know what the rules were.
When the job-hunting season began during my junior year of college, everyone around me suddenly started to dye their hair back to black and toned down their makeup. Soon, the entire junior class was walking around in the office-recruit uniform: black suits with knee-length skirts and low-heeled pumps.
I felt like I was the only one who hadn’t received the memo.
Since then, I have spent years struggling to conform in a society that was unwilling to accept my differences. Things did, however, take a turn for the better when I decided to go by my English middle name, Julia.
Seeing my Western name, people stopped questioning my failure to fit the mold and stopped dismissing me for not having Japanese attitudes.
I felt like I could finally be myself.
Yet another problem soon emerged: My male bosses at the advertising agency where I worked began to feel uncomfortable with me speaking native English in meetings with international clients.
“Your English is better than the bosses’,” one male colleague pulled me aside to tell me. “Flaunting it like that isn’t going to benefit your career.”
I realized that regardless of changing my name, speaking up and being different will always hold me down in Japanese society. What’s important is not to give in.
“Young people all say that it’s pointless raising their voices,” Sakurai said. “But not raising your voice is the same as agreeing to the status quo. So I think it’s really important for people to continue to raise their voices to be able to have hope for the future.”
It’s these voices that have reopened a discussion on allowing a “selective surname system,” in which married couples could choose their own name.
On March 5, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced it would set up a team to discuss the subject, although the chief of its policy research council chief, Hakubun Shimomura, said the panel would be made up entirely of men and led by someone “neutral.”
After two years with my husband’s last name, Inuma, my friends still get confused when I make the reservations at restaurants. They continue to look for a table for “Onishi.” Packages sometimes don’t arrive, leaving me with messages saying “they can’t find Onishi.”
Onishi is slowly fading away. I now push on, trying to make a mark, as Julia Mio Inuma.
Inuma joined The Washington Post as a Tokyo-based news assistant in January.