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Japan’s 19th century marriage laws under scrutiny

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March 28, 2024

The Japanese Supreme Court could strike down two long-standing marriage laws this week.

Women in Japan are currently banned from remarrying within six months of a divorce. There is also a legal requirement for husbands and wives to share the same surname. These two laws have been in place since the 19th Century.

The prohibition against remarriage was made to address the issue of paternity in an era before DNA testing. A mandatory waiting period made it easier to determine if a newborn child was fathered by her ex-husband or a new spouse.

The law on surnames, meanwhile, goes back to Japan’s old feudal system of government. Back then, most women and children were controlled by the, typically male, head of a household.

Despite the abolition of the feudal system in 1948 following World War II, both laws remained in place.

Masayuki Tanamura is a law professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. He explained that “many people still have the image of a woman marrying into the husband’s household” despite the demise of the old system.

Critics have called the laws sexist and out of touch with modern society. Activist Masae Ido said that the remarriage ban leaves women “under a man’s sexual control even after divorce. Speaking to international news service AFP, she described the legal difficulties she faced after a local government official said her ex-husband must be registered as the father of her child, even though he was not. Under the current rules, her baby was born too soon after their divorce. In what she described as a “bizarre legal procedure” she had to sue her new partner in order to resolve the issue. Ms Ido has since tried to help other people in similar situations.

The Japanese Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision on the two laws later this week.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Andrew says:

    Te ban on re-marriage within a stated period after divorce made pragmatic sense before DNA in a country where – as in most countries – succession depends in whole or in part on paternity – did it apply to widows too?
    In some European countries there is, I believe, still a ban on widows marrying within ninety days of being widowed, and for the same reason. It sounds like a breach of Article 14, and it may well be, but it will probably never come before the ECtHR. Not many widows want to marry within ninety days and there is no chance of getting the matter heard within that time if they do.
    No country has ever, so far as I know, placed a similar ban on men, and according to legend John of Gaunt was married to his third wife by the priest who had just given the last rites to his second wife; but it is probably only a legend; I don’t see even the King’s son having his mistress standing by in the next room to his wife’s death-bed!

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