What’s in a Name? The Fight for Women’s Identity

By Patrick McTague and Jessica Sutton.

“What’s in a name?”
An innocuous question posed by Shakespeare about a rose (or a boy). But if you ask the Japanese activists fighting to give women the right to keep their own name after marriage, they will tell you that a lot is in a name.

In Japan last week, 50 right-wing Liberal Democratic party MPs have voiced opposition over a law change that would allow women in Japan to keep their own surname when they marry. This includes Japan’s Minister for women’s empowerment and gender equality, Tamayo Marukawa.[1] Currently in Japan, both husband and wife must share a legal surname post-marriage. While it is not a legal requirement for the surname to be the husband’s, 96% of wives take their husband’s name.[2] I refer only to husband and wife in this case as same-sex marriage is still illegal in Japan.[3] This resistance to women keeping their own names may be unsurprising considering Japan ranked 121 out of 153 countries in gender equality in 2020.[4]

One of the key arguments of the right-wing Liberal Democratic party MPs has been that “allowing couples to have different surnames would harm the traditional family unit.”[5] And for a country that does not legally allow same-sex marriage, the implication of this is unmistakeable. Preserving the “traditional family unit” is a euphemism for maintaining and supporting cis-hetero-normative patriarchy. The Liberal Democratic Party may see women keeping their own, separate, identity as a step on the path to real equality for women and the LGBT+ community.

Japan is the only country in the developed world to legally mandate this surname requirement.[6] However, most wives take the husband’s name in heterosexual marriages around the world today, even though it is no longer a legal requirement.[7]

What’s the history behind this?

For the British-colonized world, the tradition of a wife taking her husband’s name comes from the doctrine of coverture. This was brought to Britain from France in the 14th century. Couverture is a legal principle specifying that, after marriage, a woman becomes the legal possession of her husband.[8] This principle prevented women having any legal identity, meaning they had no personal or property rights. Couverture included a requirement that women took an early form of surname after marriage: “wife of [husband’s name]”. Women’s names were therefore changed to denote the man they belonged to. Over time, this practice evolved into women taking their husband’s surname to further the legal fiction that the two parties became “a single person”. Women were still not legally their own entity after being married, and instead had their identities completely subsumed into their husband’s. Couverture was weakened and eventually abolished. But the practice of taking the husband’s name remains so engrained in society that even with the choice, up to 90% of British women, and 70% of American women, took their husband’s surname in marriage according to a 2016 survey.[9]

In Japan, the practice arose quite differently. Until 1870, Japanese farmers and townspeople did not have surnames. The need for surnames at this time arose from tax collection and military enlistment. Until 1896, women kept their own surname in marriage. From 1896 to 1947, there was a legal requirement for a married couple to have the same surname, when women typically left their own families to join their husband’s. And in 1947, the law was changed to mandate that a married couple’s shared surname had to be either the husband’s or the wife’s.[10] While Japanese surname practice was not rooted in women legally belonging to their husbands, the practical effect is the same. At marriage, one person must legally stop being the person they were and must fold into the other’s identity. And the vast majority of the time, it’s the woman.

Why does it continue?

Women in British-colonized countries have had the choice whether to change their name upon marriage for a long time now. However, as previously stated, the majority of these women choose to uphold this tradition. The reasons behind this may differ per person, but the underlying cause is patriarchal tradition.

A woman relinquishing her name for her husband’s is a symbolic gesture of giving a part of herself to him. However, no such thing is asked of the husband. This results in the husband remaining “whole”, and the stronger, more independent party in the relationship. This practice reinforces the “traditional family unit”, which not only others same-sex couples, but reinforces male dominance over his family. In a “traditional family”, the man is the primary person, the most important, the “head of the household”. He comes before his wife and children. In taking his name, they seem to belong to him. And societal pressures prop up this practice.

Pressure might come from relatives who call for “upholding tradition”, without giving thought to the source of that tradition. It may come from the desire to blend in with peers who have already gotten married and changed their names. It may come from bureaucratic systems which make it difficult for women who use a different name to assert their rights. Pressure may even come directly from a woman’s spouse, who benefits the most from this practice.

The desire to be closer as a family is probably the most common argument for taking the husband’s last name when children are also planned. It can lead to women changing their name well after marriage, when they decide to have children.[11] This desire may stem from the pressures of navigating bureaucracy, but it also may be more emotional. The desire to feel close to your children is natural, and societal practices indicate that having the same name is essential to this. However, this argument doesn’t address why that name must be the father’s. If familial unity requires everyone to share a surname, why is a man taking his wife’s name still so unusual? Why does such an act still appear as “political”, or the ultimate sign of a man being “whipped”? The only possible distinction appears to be gender.

What do we do?

For me, feminism is not just about choice, it’s about informed choice. So, the most important thing to do is to amplify the history of this “tradition”. No woman should be judged for choosing to take her husband’s surname. She may have good reasons for doing so, or simply prefer her husband’s last name. But she should be given the opportunity to make an informed decision.

And in Japan, it’s impossible to make an informed decision if you’re not allowed to make any decision. Legal enforcement plus social expectations give Japanese women little choice. This law is an insidious way of keeping women in secondary roles, subservient to their husbands. Some may not consider it a serious infringement of women’s rights, but it sends a clear message to women that their elected officials will deny them equality.

For women’s rights to progress in Japan, this type of law and this attitude to women must be changed. To do this, pressure must come from all angles: international bodies, Japanese citizens, opposition MPs, and allies from around the world. And most importantly, votes. The right-wing Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has held power for 60 of the last 65 years. To see significant advances to women’s rights there, parties that impose these laughable restrictions on women’s equality must be voted out in favour of more progressive parties.

More broadly, we need to attack the expectation that taking the husband’s name is the socially acceptable default. Women have, and deserve, full and independent identities. A woman’s name is not temporary until marriage. It is hers. She is born with the right to her own name, she should not be pressured to give that up.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/26/japan-minister-opposes-move-to-allow-women-to-keep-maiden-names

[2] https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00542/japan%E2%80%99s-enforcing-of-same-surnames-for-couples-has-only-a-short-history.html

[3] https://www.equaldex.com/region/japan

[4] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/26/japan-minister-opposes-move-to-allow-women-to-keep-maiden-names

[6] https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00542/japan%E2%80%99s-enforcing-of-same-surnames-for-couples-has-only-a-short-history.html

[7] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200921-why-do-women-still-change-their-names

[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29804450

[9] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200921-why-do-women-still-change-their-names

[10] https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00542/japan%E2%80%99s-enforcing-of-same-surnames-for-couples-has-only-a-short-history.html

[11] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200921-why-do-women-still-change-their-names


Photo by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash

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