If you were forced to lose your name…

Naming customs keep popping up on me. So I decided to explore the topic in a post.

Last semester in one of my history classes we read Lost Names by Richard E. Kim. It is a fictionalized account of a family during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The title refers to the laws passed by the colonial government in 1939 and 1940 that required Koreans to change their family names to Japanese ones. The scene in the book were the father character goes to have his name changed is very dramatic, funerary even, and afterward everyone in town goes to their ancestors’ graves and prays for forgiveness. In class a big deal was made of this. I, too, felt that it was an absolutely horrible thing to subjugate someone to the extent of taking away their identity. I think most of us here in the States would react that way if someone told us we had to suddenly change our name: How dare they!

Well, make that half of us.

During intersession I finally got the chance to read a book I’d taken out from the library titled I’m Married To Your Company! Everyday Voices of Japanese Women by Masako Itoh. It’s a collection of essays she had previously published in various Japanese women’s magazines. One essay was titled, “Women don’t need their own names, do they?” (p. 61) It was about how many Japanese women introduce themselves with their husband’s name, how they are often addressed by others as the wife or mother of some male, and sign their husband’s name at community events, even when the husband didn’t attend at all. One particularly striking anecdote was of a woman filling out an application for a library card who gets to the “Name” line and asks the author, “You mean my husband’s name?” At the end, Itoh asks herself, “I wonder what women are getting in return for giving up their names?”

In that history class, when we learned about the mandated loss of Korean names, I think we all felt it had been an injustice. But when half our population is similarly told to change their names by the dominant class, do we blink an eye? These days it’s okay with some men if the women they marry choose not to take their names, or choose to have a hyphenated name. But outside of women’s studies, the same people who feel repulsion at what happened to the Koreans think nothing of the fact that women are in general expected to have their husband’s name on them in some way.

I started thinking about this again because Monday the topic on a local morning radio show was “Is it okay for a man to take his wife’s last name upon marriage?” One of the disc jockeys had a very old-fashioned view, namely that a man who took his wife’s name was a “big pussy.” It’s attitudes like that that prove loud and clear that there is still a need for a feminist movement, because women are still not treated as equals of men. To me, being equal doesn’t mean that I can do everything a man can do. That’s a big part of it, it was the first part of it. But the fact that when men do things that are generally thought of as “female behaviors” (such as taking the name of one’s spouse) they are looked down upon proves that women are still looked down upon.

Later that same day, in another history class, the professor had us give a self-introduction which included “one unique thing.” A young man said that one unique thing about him was that he was the only person he knew with a hyphenated name. Yes, he said “person,” not “man.” I said, nope, I’ve got one of those too, and the prof was checking the class list. Now that I think of it, it’s particularly funny that he said that in that class, because the professor herself has a hyphenated name! (Although she tells us to call her by the second one.) At which point another classmate says, “but he’s a man.” Perhaps the young man had meant to say “man,” but he said “person.” Which leads me to believe that women taking on hyphenated names must still be highly unusual in some communities in the U.S.

Would it be so bad if both the man and the woman took on each other’s name? Or if, more easily, neither changed their name? I don’t have anything against a woman who changes her name to her husband’s name (if that’s what she really wanted). I am against the discrimination of men who take their wife’s name, because it implies that doing so is a degrading thing. And if it’s degrading, why are women still largely expected to do it?

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6 thoughts on “If you were forced to lose your name…

  1. Oh, so many good questions, and I love how you interesect this with some Asian history. Korean women, IMO, deserve libraries filled with their stories. They are not heard enough.

    I personally have no interest in getting married, but even if I were I probably wouldn’t change my last name. The fact of the matter is, I don’t like my last name now! It’s my father’s last name and since I, for the most part, have no relationship with him, the name feels empty and meaningless to me. Last names, even if they’re from the mother’s side at this point, are still patrilineal in some way (whether they were her father’s or her grandfather’s, etc). I also feel like they’re classist in a way, because so often we associate “good” one with wealth (Hilton, Trump, etc) For me, it would be so much easier to go through life just as Dolly. That’s the name that I ultimately feel most connected to, though obviously there are plenty of Dolly’s on the planet even if it is a rarer first name.

    I agree with you that men who take their women’s last names should *not* be discriminated against. For all the women who take their husbands’ last names, why is it such a problem for men to do the same? It challenges traditional definitions of masculinity; a real man wouldn’t define himself by his woman’s lineage! It’s a totally sexist attiude.

    Sometimes names get long and complicated when they are hyphenated, so I can understand why some people wouldn’t want to do that. You know what I think would be an interesting thing to do? Why don’t people merge their last names? So Smith and Jones: the Jiths! or the Smones! lol Why not though? People could get creative and it would show a true union of the people being married. GREAT post, sol! ^_^

  2. The Jiths! \ ^o^ /

    Yeah, I was thinking about how even though I have my father’s and mother’s last names, since the name that gets passed on is the father’s name, even the name a Hispanic person gets from their mother is still a man’s name. And indeed, the point of having both names in Hispanic culture is to prove one is not an “illegitimate child”, and people with just one name were (don’t know if it’s still the case) discriminated against, at least in the countries that continued the practice of double last names. So even if it’s not a wealth thing, there is still a status involved that can be and was used to discriminate against people, which sucks.

    At the same time, for me having both names was a matter of cultural preservation, since it is something that isn’t done in the U.S. and not even in all Latin American countries. Actually, I added the hyphen when I naturalized; a Hispanic person who sees my name understands that “Vega” is my first last name, but when Americans would see it, they’d think it was my middle name! Though I am glad I don’t have a middle name because then my name would be preposterously long!

    If I ever got married I wouldn’t change my name either. It’s not like I’m famous, but the people that know me don’t know me by any name other than the one I have, and I don’t think I should have to give up my identity for someone that supposedly loves me.

  3. thank you for the thought

    i did try your suggestion by playing it safe and go to Square Enix Online Merchandise Store for my final fantasy needs, but the sad thing about it is that they don’t sell them in sets. its either you purchase the whole box or get them individually in a blind random box.

    anyways, i like what you done with your page. im a noob at this whole blogging thing, still figuring the tools in editing…=p

  4. Pingback: Girls Just Wanna…Get Approval From Men?? «

  5. But it’s not only men who object to taking their spouses’ last name. Feminists have the same objection. I think the percentage of feminists and the percentage of men who change their last name at marriage is approximately the same very low number. So if you are critical of men who refuse to change their name, are you equally critical of feminists who are just as opposed to changing their names?

    “I don’t think I should have to give up my identity for someone that supposedly loves me.” Then I’m sure you will not criticize men for being equally adamant about not giving up their identity. Right?

    • Hello, Haloran! Thanks for your comment.

      Unfortunately, I think you have missed the point. Nowhere do I say that men should change their names. As far as what to do, what I said was: “Would it be so bad if both the man and the woman took on each other’s name? Or if, more easily, neither changed their name?”

      The point of discussing why men REFUSE to change to their name isn’t to say that they SHOULD change it, rather, it is to point out that if the dominating class (men) refuses to do something, there must be something wrong or inconvenient about said action. Of course men don’t want to give up their identity! So why do women have to give up theirs? That’s what I’m saying.

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