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[TOKYO] Japan's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a law forcing couples to have the same name after marriage is not a breach of the constitution, public broadcaster NHK said, upholding a system in place since the 19th century.
Five plaintiffs had said the current law breaches rights guaranteed under the constitution, because in most cases Japanese women take their husband's name to comply with the legal requirement. They had sought compensation for personal distress and difficulties at work they say were caused by being forced to change their names, according to court documents published on a website for supporters.
The ruling is the culmination of a decades-old battle and comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government seeks to entice more women into the workforce to bolster the economy as Japan's population ages and shrinks. While Mr Abe has vowed to create a society where "women can shine" in all walks of life, conservatives in his party argue allowing separate names would lead to the breakdown of family ties.
Some recent polls show a majority of the public are in favor of the change. A survey published by the conservative Sankei newspaper this week found 51 per cent of respondents agreed the law should allow couples to keep their names, while 42 per cent said they were opposed. The percentage in favor of change was higher among younger age groups, with a majority of those over 60 still against it, the paper said.
Japan is alone among developed nations in enforcing such name changes, said Jun Orii, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. The law should be revised to reflect developments in society, she said.
"There are a lot of people who are forced to change their names even though they don't want to," Ms Orii said. "Their voices have not been heard. With women taking a more active part in society, having to change your name can be a problem. More and more people feel that way."
Under the existing law, some Japanese men take their wife's name on marriage, particularly in cases where the woman has no brothers to inherit the family name. Foreigners are also not obliged to change their names if they marry Japanese citizens.
Many Japanese women, including Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, continue to use their maiden name at work, while taking their husband's name for legal purposes. Other couples opt out of a formal marriage to avoid changing their name, or undergo a "paper divorce" after having children, while remaining together.
In a separate case Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that a law banning women from re-marrying for six months after a divorce was against the constitution. The court suggested that a 100-day ban would be reasonable, NHK reported.