Five Japanese citizens filed suit in the Tokyo District Court [official website, in Japanese] on Monday challenging the constitutionality of a civil law that forces married couples to choose a single surname. The plaintiffs claim that Article 750 of the Japan Civil Code, requiring a husband and wife to assume the same surname when married, violates Articles 13 and 24 of the Japanese Constitution [texts], which ensures respect for individuals and equality between husband and wife in a marriage. Filing the first lawsuit challenging the surname requirement, the plaintiffs argue that, while the constitution requires equal rights between partners, the civil code requires the bias of one by forcing them to choose a single surname. The case also challenges the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan [official website, in Japanese], whose Democratic party, when elected in 2009, promised, but failed to pass legislation amending the one-surname law. The plaintiffs, four women and one of their husbands, are demanding that local government offices accept marriage certificates listing different surnames and seek six million yen (USD $70,000) in damages [AFP report] from the government for emotional distress.
In 1996, the Japanese Ministry of Justice [official website, in Japanese] Legislative Counsel outlined an amendment to the Civil Code [text], proposing that couples may retain their respective surnames. Again last year, the Ministry of Justice proposed a similar amendment [Japan Today report] after a policy meeting [transcript, in Japanese]. However, due to political opposition, no further actions were ever taken on either of the proposals. Japan is the last remaining member of the Group of Eight [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] nations to require that married couples have the same surname. Civil advocates argue that the forcible use of one surname implicates serious human rights abuses. In 2009, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [text] urged Japan [UN report, PDF] to eliminate the "discriminatory" one-surname requirement and "take immediate action to amend the Civil Code."