Japanese women sue to keep maiden names

A law compels females to assume their husbands` surnames when they marry.

Tokyo: A group of Japanese women filed a challenge on Monday to a 19th century law that compels almost all females to drop their maiden names and assume their husbands` surnames when they marry.

The landmark case, launched before the Tokyo District Court, is seen as a test for the rights of women, who continue to struggle against gender stereotypes and remain under-represented in politics and corporate boardrooms.

Japan`s Civil Code stipulates that married couples must share one surname -- in practice almost always that of the husband, although some men have assumed their wives` names, often if the women come from noble families.

The plaintiffs -- four women, and the husband of one of them -- argue that the civil code clause dating back to 1898 breaches the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for both spouses.

The individuals from Tokyo, Kyoto and Toyama are also demanding a total of JPY 6 million (USD 70,000) in damages for their emotional distress, a higher amount than the group had announced earlier, their lawyers said.

Hopes for a revision of the civil code rose after the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power in September 2009, ending half a century of conservative rule, and pushed for an immediate change.

However, the reform withered as the DPJ`s small coalition partner, the People`s New Party, strongly opposes the move, a position shared by many other conservative politicians in Japan.

Public opinion is sharply divided on the issue. In a recent government survey, 37 percent of respondents said they supported a revision of the code, while 35 percent were against.

Bureau Report