The coronavirus pandemic has heightened distress felt by unmarried Japanese couples in long-term relationships as they face the prospect that, should one become ill, they would not be afforded the same rights as married couples.

Uncomfortable about relinquishing their respective family names, they felt their only option was to remain common-law couples. For this reason, they want a change made to the civil code that would give them legal recognition as a family, changing a requirement that Japanese married couples share a name.

"We prepared our marriage document immediately after April's declaration of a national emergency against the virus," said a 46-year-old nurse who has been with her common-law husband for 19 years, gazing at the document, mostly filled out but with the space for the family name remaining blank.

Japanese husbands or wives can take their spouses' last name, but according to the labor ministry, 96 percent of those who give up their family name are women.

The nurse said that her last name is an integral part of her identity.

She built her professional life with the name she has always known, including publishing writing under it, and changing seemed like "being cut off from my career," especially without assurances that employers would allow her to retain her maiden name.

A nurse shows the marriage document she and her common-law husband have mostly filled out but with the surname box left blank, as pictured in Tokyo in August 2020. (Names and other personal information have been pixelated for privacy reasons)(Kyodo)

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Her husband did not wish to change his either, and out of mutual respect, they felt obliged to go the common-law route.

Their three children have her husband's name, and the family has never felt that having different names makes them less of a unit, an argument often trotted out by conservative lawmakers who have campaigned to maintain the status quo while holding political sway for decades.

The lack of legally recognized ties has left her unable to claim spousal tax deductions, and parental and inheritance rights concerns remain.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic has heightened the stress and resolve to deal with the issue.

If either is hospitalized by the virus, she worries that it may be difficult to persuade the hospital to share important health updates.

They could be refused hospitalization as a family, could be barred from receiving critical treatment information, or be unable able to sign consent for medical treatments on the other's behalf should it be warranted.

There are other worries, too. Since her husband has parental rights, his sudden death would leave her with no legal claim over their children, putting them in a vulnerable position.

"If there are people who want to have the same last names, they can have the last name. But it is strange to force people to change their names when they are against it," said the nurse.

Shuhei Ninomiya, a professor in family law at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, said that couples could prepare documents such as spousal notifications, notarized deeds, and certificates of residence to attempt to prove common-law marriage in an emergency. But "there is no guarantee (the government) would accept them, and it does not fundamentally resolve the issue," he said.

A Tokyo-based citizen's group said that they have received numerous calls during the pandemic from those worried about what to do if they meet with unforeseen circumstances, much like the nurse's concerns, in which they are not legally recognized as a family.

"The pandemic has made the issue more personal. I want the public to be more aware so anyone can live with the last names they've chosen," said Naho Ida, 44, the group's executive director.

The requirement -- considered outmoded by many -- came into being during the Meiji period, when society placed heavy emphasis on groups, instead of individuals, to function, explained Masayuki Tanamura, a professor at Waseda University, who thinks the law ought to reflect modern family units.

Much of the Japanese public seems to agree, according to a 2017 Cabinet Office survey. Out of nearly 3,000 respondents, 42.5 percent supported changing the family law so individuals could retain their last names after marriage, exceeding the 29.3 percent of respondents who disagreed.

But a Supreme Court ruling in 2015 stated that there was no preferential treatment between men and women under the civil code regarding married couples' surnames, determining that the judgment was constitutional.

Just this month, the Hiroshima Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a female doctor in a suit against the government to recognize her maiden name, upholding the first ruling and dismissing the complainant's appeal that it was unconstitutional.

The judge in the case said, "Careful consideration is necessary when changing the system. There is a definite significance to married couples having the same surnames," adding, "You cannot say that the rule goes as far as to restrict a marriage unjustly."



On the other hand, based on the fact the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has issued a recommendation to change the system, the judged added, "I expect serious debate on the issue in the Diet."

Despite efforts for change, it has been difficult to pierce the bloc of conservative lawmakers who have ruled the political roost for decades arguing all the while that couples with different names lead less united families.

Small fissures seem to have appeared within the conservative Liberal Democratic Party ranks, however. Japan's newly installed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently said that the topic needs "cautious discussion" and lawmakers like Tomomi Inada have been relatively vocal about the need for change.

The citizen's organization, which was created in 2018, says attendance to their study sessions on the issue to which they invite experts and lawmakers has grown, including by those of a conservative bent.