By Trishit Banerjee | Translated by Ayşe Haruka Açıkbaş
Feminism advocate Shu Matsuo Post speaks to Voice Up Japan about his experience with adopting his wife’s last name and why one shouldn’t be limited due to one’s sex.
Shu Matsuo Post first met his wife in Hong Kong. He says that she challenged his beliefs right from the beginning. “I remember specifically that on one of her birthday nights, I took her out to a nice restaurant and was ready to pay but she wasn’t buying any of it and for some reason we started to talk about feminism and gender equality. I remember she was challenging my views. I felt very uncomfortable and defeated,” he recalls. With the realisation of the necessity of being anti-sexist dawning upon him, he started to believe that being neutral is never the solution. “Let’s face it. We live in a patriarchal world. If you are conforming to the society and being neutral towards sexism, you are a sexist. In order to promote gender equality, you have to be anti-sexist,” he says.
It was when Matsuo Post finally decided to get married, he realised how the systemic sexism makes it easier for women to give up their last name. According to the Article 750 of Japanese Civil Code, a married couple must have the same family name. Separate family names or combining the two isn’t allowed under the current law.
However, his experience in the US and Japan were not the same. “We got married in the US and the next morning we went to the city hall for the paperwork and it was simple: From now on, you are Matsuo Post. It was the easiest thing!” It is important to note that a 2018 study by Shafer and Christensen in Journal of Family Issues revealed that only 3% men in the US changed their last name to their wife’s. In spite of this, the system allows equally convenient access for both men and women to change their names. On the contrary, in Japan where a 2017 survey of 606,866 marriages revealed that 4.1% men change their names, the system is increasingly stringent for men. “When I wanted to combine our last names officially in Japan and went to the city office, the response was that I couldn’t do that. The issue is with the law that prevents a couple from having separate surnames or even combining it with your partner.” Matsuo Post says. When he further enquired about a way out, the official suggested an alternative process through the family court. “Isn’t family court for divorce cases?” Matsuo Post recalls.
In the end, he exploited a loophole in the system to achieve his goal. While his wife first changed her last name from ‘Post’ to ‘Matsuo Post’ easily in the US on her official documents, he used that as an argument to take his wife’s new name in Japan and thus aligning with the existent rules. “So Japan didn’t see it as combining of the two names. I took her name in the most literal sense. But if you are a Japanese marrying a fellow Japanese, it would be extremely difficult,” he explains. “I know many people in Japan who do not want to get married because of this. They want to stay with their partner but they don’t want to give up their identity,” he further adds.
“Changing my last name was symbolic of me letting go of my gender expectations,” says Matsuo Post who is currently writing a book titled I Took Her Name about his journey into vulnerability, authenticity, and feminism.
A choice-based decision over expectation-based
Matsuo Post definitely doesn’t advocate for a plain request to all men for changing their names. “I am not saying that every man should take his partner’s name. They can do it if they want to but they shouldn’t refuse by reasoning it as a tradition. If the wife really wants to change her name, that’s great, too. But it should be a purely choice-based decision,” he says. The process he underwent in Japan made him realise the challenges that come with a decision such as this. “I had to change my passport, driver’s license, work email, business cards, etc. In most countries, men don’t have to worry about this,” he says. “Taking someone’s name is taking on a new identity. So why do we expect women to go through this just because they are women?” he further questions.
On asking whether his choices ever raised challenges in his relationship with his family and friends, he clearly denies it. “Luckily, my family is very open-minded. Living abroad for almost 14 years, I told my parents a few years before getting married that I was not sure if I would end up with a Japanese person. I was in Hong Kong at the time, and there was nothing wrong with marrying a Japanese person but I didn’t think I needed to do that for my parents or my family,” he explains. Even though his wife and his mother have difficulty interacting with each other due to the language barrier, he says that his family makes her feel welcome and loved. “I feel the same way with her family,” he adds. “Except I can communicate with her family in English.” His wife is from Minnesota. However, her father is from Switzerland and she has family members based in other countries. “She has travelled and lived all over the world and her parents probably knew that her partner wouldn’t be an American,” he explains.
Every culture adds a different layer to a complex issue like gender. In Japan, language too plays a role in propagating patriarchy. “In Japanese, when you refer to a husband, a lot of wives refer to them as 主人 (Shujin). The first character literally means master. There are other ways to address but a lot of women call their husbands as master,” he explains. Even though he agrees that Scandinavian countries are doing better with closing the gender gap, he doesn’t believe any country has found the perfect equality just yet.
Confronting the world of intersectional sexism
Born and raised in suburban Tokyo, closer to Yokohama, Matsuo Post lived in Japan until he was 15. “My father used to work for a company based in California. He used to take our family to the US every summer since I was six years old. That was my first time in the US and my first experience outside Japan,” he recalls. His travels and the initial perception he had about the country convinced him that to be successful, going to the US was a must. By the time he reached high school, he was already determined. “I left Japan. I was all by myself,” he says. He had a host family in the country, and his parents were supportive of his decision.
Over the next eight years, Matsuo Post would spend his life in the US and lived in New York during his final year. He describes the city as ‘one of the most diverse cities I have ever been to’ and it was there when he realised he wasn’t a stereotypical Japanese: something that he would have to confront later. He returned to Japan with a reverse culture shock. “Part of me wasn’t Japanese but everyone expected me to be one as I spoke the language and looked like one. I was conflicted. I lost my identity,” he says. Back in the US where has was a minority and realised what it meant to be marginalised, his return to Japan was an eye-opener as he got to see the cultural discrimination by the majority against minority groups such as Korean-Japanese and African people. Realising his frustration against the system, he again left Japan for Hong Kong – a city that he describes as the ‘biggest melting pot of Asia.’ “I met people from all over the world. I had friends from various backgrounds and sexualities, and I became well aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion,” he claims.
Inspite of living in such diverse cities, Matsuo Post confessed that one group he hadn’t understood was women. His idea of gender met with a reverse blow when he experienced chivalry (the idea of being a gentleman) in the US. “This was the opposite of Japan as women here are supposed to be gentle to men. I was used to it so experiencing chivalry was refreshing,” he says. It was only later he realised that chivalry too is a part of sexism. “Why aren’t men being nice to other men who are in need? People should be kind to other people. Period,” he explains.
Matsuo Post’s experience with both racism and sexism buttresses the argument that viewing the issue of gender independently of other challenges does not lead to deeper understanding. “What a white woman goes through is different from what a black woman goes through. Add sexuality to it, the experiences of a cis white woman is different from a trans black woman. Men definitely have more power in gender around the world and whites, especially in the US, have more power in race,” he explains the intersectionality of the two. “Much like systemic racism, sexism is also systemic. It is basically for men to enjoy the benefits that a system provides,” he adds.
Political vs Social
Matsuo Post acknowledges the fact that gender in Japan can lead to a very different image when looked at it historically. “Back in the Yayoi period, there was a female ruler Himiko and there have been some powerful females in the history of Japan. It is only in the recent history that we see for example, all Prime Ministers being men,” he notes. He believes that the change in understanding of gender in Japan may be attributed to the western influence. “I know there was a propaganda in the US about men being in the workforce, providing for the family and emotionally stoic whereas women being the caretaker, kind, empathetic and nice to the family. However, I am not sure if it was the same in Japan,” he says.
When talking about last names, it is important to note though that they weren’t popular until Japan entered the Meiji period in the late-19th century. Even under Meiji restoration, in accordance with earlier traditions, the government allowed separate last names for the spouses as stated in an order dating March 17, 1876. It was only in December 1947 that the revised civil code was enacted in post-war occupied Japan making it necessary to adopt either of the spouse’s last names. What looked progressive from a historical standpoint has evolved and has necessitated for a change. Not long after, the first petition to allow for separate family names was submitted in the Diet on September 26, 1975.
In 1976, the Prime Minister’s Office conducted a public opinion poll which revealed that only 20.3% respondents supported separate last names against 62.1% who didn’t believe so. By the time a national survey was conducted in 2018 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, 50.5% married women agreed to the proposition for separate last names. Since the start of the survey in 1993, this was the first time that the number crossed 50%.
Even though a social change is visible, the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe isn’t reflective of such a change. When reporters in July 2019 asked a panel of politicians at Japan National Press Club whether they agreed to separate last names, everyone except Abe agreed to such a revision.
However, a joint survey conducted and published by Asahi Shinbun and Masaki Taniguchi Laboratory at University of Tokyo in May 2020 revealed that 54% of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) supporters agreed to separate last names, an increase by 25% since the previous survey in 2017.
In 2015, when three women filed a joint lawsuit against the Article 750 of the Civil Code, the Supreme Court struck it down on the grounds of same last names being rooted in ‘Japanese family identity.’ What is interesting to note is that the bench consisted of 12 men and three women. Barring all the women on the bench and two men, the 10-5 decision upheld the constitutionality of the article.
For Matsuo Post, the personal is political. “I think it is definitely political. It is social in the sense it has been like this for so many years. What I don’t understand is why Japan, a developed nation, is so behind in this. I think people are changing quicker than its politics,” he says.
Letting go of societal expectations
In the end, how does one convince other men that it is fine to give up their name? “When you are born, you are assigned sex. That is the moment you are imposed with societal expectations. For me, changing my last name was a sign of letting go of my gender expectations and redefining masculinity,” Matsuo Post says. “I grew up learning men are supposed to be strong, financially stable, emotionally inexpressive, and athletic,” he says. “That is what the society tells you, the media tells you and your parents tell you and it is nobody’s fault. The patriarchal system tells men to be that way. What if you don’t have to be a certain way just because you were assigned to certain sex?” he adds.
For Matsuo Post, education too has a crucial role to play. “I have done speaking engagements with 30-40 people at a time but that won’t change a country’s policy over night. Educational reforms are the most impactful. It is important that children learn about the history of surnames, why we live in a patriarchal society, and what we can do to make a difference,” he says. In the coming years, he looks forward to speaking to more young people. “It will take time with older people but that doesn’t mean I won’t try,” he says. It is my job to share my story because I am truly benefitting from letting go.”
Shu Matsuo Post’s book ‘I Took Her Name’ releases in Fall 2020. You can follow its updates on www.shumatsuopost.com .