A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

In Tsukuba`s (and the rest of Ibaraki Prefecture`s) Old Neighborhoods, Many Men Take on their Wives Family Names as MUKO YOSHI (婿養子) – Adopted Sons-in-Law who Make it Possible to Continue the Family Line

By Avi Landau

Yesterday Japan`s Supreme Court rejected demands to declare unconstitutional the law requiring married couples to use the same family name for official purposes. The claimants who had brought the case to court, had insisted that their names were an essential part of their identities, and that being forced to change them upon marriage was an infringement upon their individual rights. Based on the opinion polls I have seen, a significant majority of Japanese under 70 years of age appears to agree with the claimants, but still, the court, reinforcing traditional “family values” declared that when a couple marries they must share a family name – either the husband`s or the wife`s. The media, both TV and newspapers then provided a statistic – 90% of Japanese couples go with the husband`s family name.

That means that 10 percent of men who marry take on their wife`s family name. And when I heard that, I immediately thought about something that had surprised me when I first came to Tsukuba- that many men not only take on their wives` family names, but they are formally ADOPTED into their wives` families. Men who do this are called MUKO YO-SHI (婿養子) – adopted sons-in-law!

It is especially common in Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods where  families with only daughters (or sons who do not or cannot get married) need to adopt a son-in-law in order to continue the family line, pass down their property and family name, AND have someone to take care of their graves after they pass away (tis is an important point for many). Most of the families who are interested in finding such a son-in-law are land-owners and have large houses. And the men who agree to give up their own family names and move in with new “parents are second or third sons who will not be inheriting their own families property.

There is a great disparity of MUKO-YO-SHI culture between the city and the countryside. Some of my friends in Tsukuba tell me that they, as only-daughters, felt great pressure to find a man willing to be adopted into their families – and felt jealous of city-girls who didn`t have to worry about such things

I haven`t been able to get any data on this yet, but I am SURE that the the rate of MUKO YO-SHI couples (in which the husband takes on the wife`s family name) in Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods in significantly higher than 10 percent. It seems that just about every man who was not born in the old neighborhood he lives in is a MUKO YO-SHI. You can even assume that they are.

There is a linguistic problem that arises when making friends with a MUKO YO-SHI. In English, a woman`s pre-marriage family name is called her maiden-name. But when speaking in English to a man who has changed his name, posing the question: “What is your maiden name?” just doesn`t seem to be right.

And while some MUKO YO-SHI seem very happy with their venerable old houses (like Mr. Miyamoto in Hojo, who is always proud to guide strangers around his wife`s family`s old family house and soy-sauce brewery) many of them seem to have a complex, having given up their own family names, and become sons to wives` parents who wield plenty of power (especially financial power) over them.

I guess that for the Japanese, the MUKO YO-SHI system is a natural part of life- so it was never mentioned during the recent FAMILY NAME controversy. But when I heard the ruling, and so the plaintifs, in tears, insisting how changing their names was a blow to their identities, I could help thinking about my many friend and acquaintances who are MUKO-YO-SHI, and thinking how hard it must be for them.

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