Japan court upholds common surnames for married couples

Japan's top court on Wednesday upheld a law that requires married couples to have a common surname, sparking criticism from activists who complain the rule is sexist and outdated.

In a separate but also highly anticipated decision, the Supreme Court said a six-month waiting period for women remarrying after divorce was excessive and should be reduced.

The remarriage law is linked to complex rules about the timing of a child's birth after divorce -- designed to determine whether a baby belonged to the ex-husband or the new spouse's family in an era before DNA testing.

The court said the six-month waiting period was too long given the availability of modern technology to confirm paternity, and instead urged a period of no more than 100 days.

The rules dating to 1898 are a throwback to Japan's feudal family system, in which all women and children came under the control of the head of the household -- overwhelmingly men.

That family system was abolished in 1948 as part of broad reforms pushed by the post-World War II US occupation, but Japan's civil code maintained the surname and remarriage rules.

Presiding judge Itsuro Terada said the surname law "does not violate the constitution", according to the ruling posted on the court's website.

He also said that changing one's name after marriage did not harm "individual dignity and equality between men and women", noting that maiden names can be used informally.

Even though men can take their wife's surname, in reality about 96 percent of married women in Japan take their husband's family name.

Men in Japan occasionally take their wife's surname in a traditional practice to maintain that name in the absence of a male heir in her family.

Social conservatives defend both laws as crucial to maintaining Japan's traditional family structure.

Activists, however, had hoped the court would overturn them, saying they reflected a still male-dominated society more than a century after the statutes came into effect, and meant Japan lagged behind other advanced countries.

- 'Move quickly' -

"I am embarrassed that Japan remains so behind," plaintiff Minako Yoshii told reporters in response to the surname ruling.

"I was disappointed after hearing the verdict because I had high expectations -- we brought the case to the court because lawmakers had neglected this issue for too long."

In a show of disagreement on the 15-member bench, a total of five justices -- including all three females -- dissented from the majority on the surname ruling.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government supported the surname ruling.

He added that it would "move quickly" to amend the temporary remarriage ban in accordance with the decision.

Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki said his ministry ordered local governments to make administrative changes "even before the law is officially revised".

Some Western countries have had similar laws. France, for example, in 2004 abolished a requirement that women wait 300 days before remarrying.

Lawyer Tomoshi Sakka, who was involved in the case, welcomed the court's view that any waiting period over 100 days "excessively limits a woman's right to remarry".

Some, however, said the court did not go far enough.

"When taking scientific advances into consideration, the ban itself should be seen as unconstitutional," Shuhei Ninomiya, a professor of law at Ritsumeikan University, told AFP.

Many Japanese women had wanted the common surname rule ditched in favour of choice, as is the case in most advanced nations.

A survey by the Nikkei business daily this year showed that 77 percent of working women supported scrapping the law.

Broader opinion, however, is more mixed. An NHK poll this month showed that 46 percent support being able to choose their surname while 50 percent think a couple should use the same one.