TOKYO - Japan's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a law requiring spouses to use the same surname, the only such law in the big developed nations forming the Group of Seven, rejecting a suit saying this was unconstitutional and violated human rights.
The ruling coincides with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to draw more women into a shrinking workforce - though his conservative party was against changing the 19th century law, warning that separate surnames would destroy family ties.
The statute does not specify which name a couple must take, but in practice, 96 per cent of married women take their husband's name, a reflection of Japan's still male-dominated society. Many say this takes away their identity.
"My tears wouldn't stop overflowing when I heard the judgment," said Kyoko Tsukamoto, an 80-year-old plaintiff who uses her maiden name but took her husband's name to have children and says she wants to resume her maiden name legally. "Now I won't be able to die as Kyoko Tsukamoto," she told a news conference, her voice shaking.
In 2011, five plaintiffs filed suit against the law that to fight the law, which means that many working women have faced the hassles of juggling two names - their maiden name for professional use and their legal married name, required on official documents.
Some couples opt not to register the marriage so they can keep separate names, but doing so creates legal headaches including parental and inheritance rights.
The Supreme Court said in its ruling that "it is only reasonable for family members to have the same name," Kyodo news agency reported.
The court also noted that many women are able to use their maiden names in daily life, so their situation has improved, and it called on parliament to debate the issue.
Support for separate surnames is much higher among younger people, but public opinion is divided. "I understand changing my surname is part of the changes that marriage brings, but I think it's wrong for that decision to be forced on you," said 23-year-old Hiromi Sasaki.
In a separate case, the court declared unconstitutional a law forbidding only women from remarrying for six months after a divorce.