The Japanese Public Broadly Supports Legalizing Dual-Surname Option for Married Couples
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Survey results from the Stanford Japan Barometer, launched by the Japan Program at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC), indicate that the Japanese public supports women’s advancement in society. In addition to this broad support, the survey found that, on the issue of married couples with the same last name in particular, roughly 70% of the Japanese public support a change to accommodate women who do not want to use their husband’s last name.
Led by Professor of Sociology Kiyoteru Tsutsui, the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Professor and director of the Japan Program at APARC, and Charles Crabtree, an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and a former visiting assistant professor with the Japan Program, the Stanford Japan Barometer is a periodic public opinion survey on political, economic, and social issues concerning contemporary Japan with three main parts: (1) questions about respondents’ demographic background; (2) a stable set of questions about support for policy issues, political parties, public institutions, and international entities; and (3) a thematically focused set of questions and experimental studies on topics of great relevance at the time of the survey. The survey is conducted with a national, quota-based sample of 8,000 Japanese residents.
In its first installation of the survey conducted in late November 2022, the Stanford Japan Barometer examined issues around gender and sexuality in Japan and found, among other results, that most Japanese support same-sex marriage, as reported in an earlier press release. The survey also examined the issue of married couples’ last names, which has emerged as a potent symbol of gender inequality in Japan over the past years.
In Japan, married couples are legally required to have the same last name. While the law does not require wives to adopt the last name of their husbands, in reality, more than 95% of married women do so. Many argue that this creates a hurdle for women to advance their careers, as they have to change their last name when they get married, and if they get divorced they have to change it back to their maiden name. Known to lag behind other highly developed economies when it comes to gender equality, Japan has struggled to place women in positions of authority and raise their earnings to a level closer to those of men. Many argue that changing the law to enable married couples to maintain different last names, i.e. keep their own last name, would facilitate a movement toward gender parity as a symbolic sign of support for women’s autonomy in public spaces and a means of practical support for them to advance their career.
The government has tracked public opinion on this issue, with a cabinet office periodically conducting a survey on this topic. In the most recent government survey from 2022, there was a decline in support for a legal change to allow couples to maintain different last names and an increase in support for facilitating the use of a maiden name as the common name in workplaces, compared to the previous survey by the same office conducted in 2017. These results triggered a controversy around this issue, and media allegations surfaced that the survey question was manipulated in such a way as to decrease support for a legal change and increase support for use of a maiden name as a common name, hence pleasing the conservative ruling party LDP leaders. A debate followed as to whether the changes in the question format and answer options contributed to the results that suited what the ruling LDP wanted.
To test the validity of these allegations, Tsutsui and Crabtree conducted an experiment randomly assigning respondents to answer two versions of the government survey under scrutiny, from 2017 and 2022. They found that the survey question and answer format significantly affected the results, as support for a legal name change was at 57% when the respondents were assigned the 2017 version but 30% when they answered the 2022 version, while support for using maiden names as common names found only 19% support in the 2017 version but 39% in the 2022 version. These results provide strong evidence that it was the question format that changed the results between 2017 and 2022. The exact level of support among the Japanese public for a legal change on this issue and how public opinion might have changed over the recent past remain to be seen.
Another thing to note about these results is that in either version of the survey, support for the status quo — married couples having the same last name with no accommodations — is low, at 23% in the 2017 version and 30% in the 2022 version. This indicates that the Japanese public largely recognizes that a change is needed on this issue of married couples’ last names in order to accommodate women seeking career advancement. Tsutsui and Crabtree further examined who still resists the change and found, in their multivariate analysis, that status quo supporters have completed fewer years in school, are currently married, have children, and support Prime Minister Kishida at higher levels. Interestingly, they find a quadratic relationship when it comes to income, showing that both those at the low- and high end of the income distribution are more likely to support the status quo.
Next, Tsutsui and Crabtree conducted an experiment on different arguments that might influence support for a legal change to allow married couples to keep different last names. These arguments focused on several themes. In terms of tradition, some respondents read a prompt that argued that the custom in Japan is for married couples to have the same last name, while others read an argument that married couples in Japan kept different last names up until the first decades of the Meiji era and that is more of Japan’s tradition. Similarly, the researchers presented both pro and con arguments in terms of the social and international reputation costs of legalizing married couples with different last names, as well as the fairness of the practice from the point of view of gender equality and human rights principles.
The results show that an argument about social costs — how allowing married couples to maintain different last names would weaken family bonds with harmful effects on children — is the only one that seems to substantially change public attitudes, reducing support for a legal change. The effect is substantial, roughly 1/7 of a standard deviation, and suggests that it is easier to mobilize opposition to than support for changing the law, a finding with consequences for advocates and opponents of the legal change.
These results reflect complex gender politics at play in Japan. Whatever the intentions of the survey designers for the 2017 and 2022 government surveys, the question and answer formats they used have a significant impact on how much support can be found for married couples keeping different last names. On the other hand, the Japanese public largely recognizes that a change is needed, demonstrating broad support for some kind of change to accommodate calls for women to use their maiden name even after marriage.
As the debate on this issue continues, there is a need to observe how future surveys ask questions about it since public support for a legal change can be influenced by the question framing, format, and answer options.
For media inquiries about the survey, please reach out to:
APARC Associate Director for Communications and External Relations
Reflecting complex gender politics at play in Japan, the Stanford Japan Barometer, a new periodic public opinion survey co-developed by Stanford sociologist Kiyoteru Tsutsui and Dartmouth College political scientist Charles Crabtree, finds that the Japanese public largely supports a legal change to allow married couples to keep separate surnames.