How I found out “My parents never got married”

8 min readSep 26, 2021

“夫婦別姓” (Fufu-bessei), meaning “married couples with different last names”, has been a hot topic in Japan. The reason it’s such a hot topic is because when people get married in Japan they must have the same last name, unless it’s an international marriage (i.e. a marriage between a Japanese national and a foreign national),

I’m not going to talk about the topic itself, but I’d like to share a story about how I dealt with this issue when I was a little younger.

Fufu-bessei is not a word people normally use in their daily lives, but somehow I came to know the word and found myself using it before everyone else my age. I was only seven or eight years old. Back then, my friends would ask me in a very high-pitched, child-like way, “why do your parents have different last names?” I would answer, “Because my parents use fufu-bessei!” I was proud of knowing and being able to use a word that other kids didn’t know.

At the time, I believed that fufu-bessei was allowed in Japan.

I never once questioned my parents’ marital status. The three of us were living together happily, seemingly no different from other families. Of course, my parents had different last names but, as I understood, that was just fufu-bessei.

I can recall clearly one day in my nineth grade Home Economics class. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention during that class unless it was cooking or sewing practice. I was writing down whatever was on the blackboard as usual, half-day-dreaming, when I heard the words that made my heart drop. The teacher said, in a voice that normally lulled students to sleep:

“…so fufu-bessei is not yet allowed in Japan.”

That short sentence still lingers clearly in my ears. Wait, what? I thought it was allowed in Japan, right? How are my parents able to live together despite having different last names? Wait, have they ever talked to me about their marriage? So many questions were bubbling up in my brain.

I raised my arm, pen still in hand. Words trembled out of my mouth even before the teacher called on me, “I think that’s wrong! My parents have different last names, but they’re married!”

The teacher look slightly surprised, but she replied, “your mother might be using her maiden name for her job. On paper, married couples are required to pick only one name.” She explained further, offering examples of people (typically women) who use their maiden names on the job. However, I couldn’t recall any time seeing my mom using my dad’s name or vice versa.

I found myself throwing out random questions to the teacher, unable to contain the confusion filling my brain. She wasn’t an expert on the Japanese law, so she encouraged me to consult other teachers who would know better.

Following her advice, I went to speak with a Civics teacher after school with a friend. I recounted what had happened in Home Economics class and I was met with a troubled look from this teacher as she began, “Hmm… if they are using different last names, they might just be in 事実婚 (jijitsu-kon).

Oh, hello new word I’ve never heard before! So… jijitsu-kon is essentially a married couple without official papers turned in. I couldn’t understand the purpose of having that kind of marriage, but the teacher offered a few reasons as to why.

What those reasons were escaping me as, at that point, my mind went blank. I can barely remember much of what she told me after that. I found myself repeating that word, “jijitsu-kon,” over and over in my head. Does this mean that my parents aren’t normal parents? What does “normal parents” even mean?

One thing I do recall from the conversation with the Civics teacher is that when a couple has children, they would be given the last name of the mother. Because I shared my last name with my mother, not my father, I was slowly beginning to suspect that my parents might have never actually gotten married.

The teacher was growing worried for me and made a suggestion. “If you go to the city office and get a copy of your family register, you can find the information you’re looking for… but it might be better to ask your parents directly.” Ohh, yeah, I should ask them directly. Of course. Ask. Parents. Directly. That makes sense.

My friend who tagged along was worried for me as well, constantly making sure I was fine during our discussion with the teacher. My brain still felt blank and I didn’t know what I was feeling or even how I was supposed to feel at a moment like this. “If something happens when you talk to your parents,” my friend said, “you’re welcome at my house! Even if it gets really late, make sure to message me, okay?” I was, and still am, so grateful to have had friends to lean on when I needed it most. Make sure you take care of your friends, kids!

As I didn’t know what I was feeling, I tried to put on a smile and joked to my friend, “If they aren’t married, I might just run away from home!” All I was trying to figure out was how on Earth I was going to ask them. Which of them am I going to talk to? How will they react? What is going to happen? I said I’d “run away from home” as a joke but at some point, while I was thinking it over, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep in my own bed that night.

Back then, my parents were both working. Dad used to come home early and cook dinner for the two of us. Mom would come home a little late, maybe around 9 p.m. so I would only be able to talk to her for a short while before going to sleep. I was a little too terrified to ask my mom, so I decided I would ask dad after we finished our dinner. You know what they say: you shouldn’t fight on an empty stomach, right?

“…Why do you and mom use different last names?”

I had tried to figure out how I would structure the question in a sentence and that was the best I could think up. I didn’t want to include the words “marriage,” “fufu-bessei” — that word I’d leaned on for so long — , nor “jijitsu-kon” — the word I’d only learned just that day.

“Did mom tell you anything?”

Dad sighed as he asked this. His sigh felt deeper to me as he was aging. He was in his 60s at this point. Also, don’t you just hate it when people don’t answer a question and, instead, ask another question? I answered quietly, “No…”

This was the moment. This was how my dad began to reveal our family’s secrets, things I had been completely unaware of until that day. These secrets don’t bother me now, but for the 16-year-old me, it was too much information to take in. As I was struggling to process everything, my mind went blank again and my heart felt frozen solid.

As it turned out, my parents had indeed never gotten married. Honestly, I didn’t know what I was feeling concerning the facts about their relationship and all the secrets I’d learned. I escaped to my room and texted my friend, “My parents never got married. Can I stay at your place tonight?” It had been a long day and so much for me to handle. As I packed my school uniform into my school bag, I felt completely empty inside. It’s not as if I was going through some rebellious phase and I wanted to go against my parents’ wishes… I just didn’t want to — no, I couldn’t — be at home that night.

I told dad, “I’m going to my friend’s house.” I texted mom the same. I wore something comfortable so I could just pass out without changing, though I did wear my school loafers for the next day. It was a perfect early fall evening when the air wasn’t too hot. I believe it was around 8 p.m. and walking outside felt really, really good. As I was riding on the Oimachi train line, salarymen and elementary school kids rode along as well, returning home from work and cram schools, respectively. They were all living their normal lives on a normal school night in autumn. They had no idea about the emptiness I was feeling as we all rode the train together, as silent tears rolled down my cheeks.

Before I arrived at my friend’s house, I got a call from my mom. She was upset, yelling over the phone, “please come home so I can explain!” To my surprise, I felt a calm come over me and told her, “let me stay at my friend’s house tonight. I just need to clear my head. I’ll be home tomorrow.” I don’t want to brag, but I was a pretty good student/daughter up until that point. Anyone who knew me knew this wouldn’t lead me to turn to delinquency. I knew she had a lot to say, but I couldn’t let her. I didn’t know how much more information I could absorb in my brain. “I’m just going to stay at a friend’s house, go to school tomorrow, and then I’ll come home,” I told her again. She went silent. I felt bad for her. I couldn’t tell what she was going through. I needed to go so I said good night and hung up the phone.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

I originally published this story in Japanese on the 23rd of June, 2021. It was the day that the Japanese Supreme Court decided, yet again, to oppose fufu-bessei for Japanese couples.

It has been a hotly debated topic in Japan and whenever people talk about it, it reminds me of my parents and that fateful day. I didn’t think my experience was worth sharing. The stories couples are telling about their experience around the issue seemed more important than mine. I hear people say “If family members have different last names, how do the children feel? They wouldn’t feel like family without having the same name!” I want to tell them it wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t care that I had a different name than my dad had. For me, the biggest shock was that they never told me they weren’t married in the first place.

After understanding the situation, it was pretty easy for me to say, “Yeah, my parents are jijitsu-kon! So ‘modern’, right?” I wish they hadn’t kept it a secret from me but they’re from a different generation so perhaps they felt shame for living a different lifestyle. It’s said, “Love comes in different forms.” I wish there were more options for all of us concerning how we love one another.

A few years ago, my parents finally got around to getting married. My dad isn’t getting any younger so they want to be ready just in case something happens.

There are Japanese couples who don’t get married because fufu-bessei is not allowed. My parents couldn’t wait for Japan to change. We don’t know how long it will take, but I really hope Japan will accept all love in different forms.