Under the Civil Code, either the husband or wife must change their family name to be married legally. Usually it is the wife who does so.
The history of obliging a married couple to bear a single family name is relatively recent. It was only after the 1868 Meiji Restoration that families were systematically registered under one family name.
Before the Meiji Era, having a surname was a privilege of the samurai class. Ordinary citizens, such as farmers and merchants, were banned from using family names, although some privately used self-claimed family names.
In 1870, the Meiji government allowed all citizens to use family names, and in the following year, the government enacted the Census Registration Law for levying taxes and for the draft. The new law turned the lineal family, known as "ie," into one unit of registration. So even if several families of the same ancestor lived separately, they were registered under the name of one ie. The ie concept as the basis of the family system was further strengthened by establishment of the Civil Code in 1898.
Under the ie system, the eldest male in a family line was vested with exclusive rights, including the right to approve a marriage, decide the place of residence of married family members, and manage and inherit the family property.
The Civil Code stipulated that a wife enters the ie of a husband by marriage and bears the husband's family name. Wives had no legal rights over family matters, such as parental or property rights. Marriage in the Meiji Era literally meant an absorption of a wife by a husband's family.
The postwar Constitution, enacted in 1946, abolished the system of marriage approval by the family heads and stipulated that a marriage takes effect solely by agreement between a man and a woman. In line with the Constitution, the Civil Code was also revised in 1947 to provide that a married couple could choose either the husband's or wife's name on an equal basis, thereby abolishing the ie system where a wife entered her husband's family.
The Census Registration Law, which placed the lineal family as one unit of registration in the prewar era, was revised to make the nuclear family one unit. However, the legacy of the prewar ie notion remained in the hearts of Japanese culture.
In recent years there have been calls to revise the Civil Code to permit separate family names for married people. The issue gained momentum when Japan ratified the U.N. Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1985, and enacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in the following year. In 1996, the Justice Ministry's Legislative Council recommended that a married couple be given the choice as to whether they change their family name to either the husband's or wife's, or keep their family names separate, but the proposal failed because of opposition from conservative lawmakers.
Nonetheless, an increasing number of women are using their maiden names in business and socially. Official use of maiden names is becoming increasingly acceptable in the workplace. Indeed, in 2001 the Japanese government presented a policy to allow the use of maiden names by central government employees.