Japan's maiden names are for maidens only

Hiroko Mizushima has been married several times to the same man.

But theirs is no soap-opera saga: Dr. Mizushima once divorced her husband to get a passport so the name would match her other documents. She remarried him to have their baby, and then filed for divorce again to continue publishing under the byline with which she's built her career as a child psychiatrist.

"We've been married for nine years and never had any real intentions to get divorced," Mizushima says. "But I write in international journals and have patients who know my name, so how can I change it?"

The couple is legally married again, but Mizushima insists on going by her original family name, which is technically illegal.

Mizushima is supposed to make laws, not break them. As a freshman politician who was elected to the lower house of parliament this summer, she is leading a drive to change the timeworn laws that require members of a family to have one last name.

After Japan's Diet goes back into session Jan. 9, Mizushima plans to introduce legislation to change the law governing the koseki, roughly translated as a household registry. The koseki, with its roots weaving back to the 6th century, dictates that one spouse must join the other's ie, something akin to "house of," and often like an extended clan.

These days, a groom can also join his bride's koseki, but most women are expected to take their husband's family name.

And, in a country where most people refer to each other by their last names even in casual settings, some here argue that the koseki policy has not kept up with the times.

"Many politicians think if we change the law, family unity will be destroyed," says Mizushima, a waifish 30-something with a choppy cropped haircut and no-nonsense pantsuit. "This is symbolic of everything in Japanese society: Politics don't work as normal Japanese people wish they would."

Mizushima's victory last June was one of many signs that women in Japan are emerging as a more significant force in politics and in the workforce. The last parliament had 25 women in the lower house, while the June election raised the total to 35. The upper house, elected in 1998, has 43 women, a gain of six over 37 who won in the 1995 elections.

Now, Mizushima and other newcomers to this male-dominated world are cutting their legislative teeth on social problems, which party veterans have tended to ignore - ranging from domestic violence to the lack of child-care facilities to rights for part-time workers, many of them women.

Tinkering with the koseki, however, promises to be about as politically palatable as changing the US Constitution. Mizushima says Japanese began using family names - thus insisting on one per couple - only about 200 years ago, but conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party view the system as an integral part of the Japanese heritage. A spokesman for the right-leaning LDP says the party is against Mizushima's proposal and has "no plans to discuss the issue."

Keiko Higuchi, a professor of gender studies at Tokyo Kasei University, says that traditionalists are likely to remain protective of something they see as a symbol of family harmony at a time when newspapers are full of stories about social ills like rising violence among Japanese youth. "There might be mixed opinions within the party, but conservatives in Japan will be against it," she says. "They think that the concept of the household as one will collapse."

Good riddance, says Marumi Takeda, one of the leaders of a group trying to abolish the koseki system altogether. Ms. Takeda and her husband of 18 years, Tsunenobu Kawada, aren't legally married because they never went through the nuptial registration process.

"Because we have an ie, a household system, that becomes more important than the individual," says Takeda, a freelance editor. "People think it's natural for a man to head the household, and women are seen as a means of giving birth to babies."

While some choose to keep their maiden names, mostly for professional reasons, for many the decision is more ideological. Takeda says that after finding the man she wanted to marry, "As an individual, I wanted to keep my name. If we had registered as married, then I'm just 'Marumi,' and there is no surname for me in the household registry other than his. If my husband dies, I'm just Kawada-san's widow."

Living together without any formal recognition as husband and wife, however, also takes its toll. Takeda has to pay higher taxes, and can't get health benefits through her husband's employer. But the one who may suffer most is their 15-year-old son. Among other forms of social discrimination he may face, he is legally entitled to just half of his inheritance.

In fact, some couples have switched to the wife's koseki to capture inheritance rights from her side of the family, which she must forfeit when she joins her husband's family. And, it is not unheard of for a man to drop his last name and adopt his wife's.

Kazu Hirano, for example, a news reporter in Tokyo, took his wife's name 11 years ago because his then-fiancee had "a little conflict with my mother" and didn't want to adopt his name. But, he hastens to add, it wasn't for inheritance rights - they opened up a brand new koseki together.

"I think that if they change the law and say that you can have two names," says Mr. Hirano, "I'll take my original family name back."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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