A Japanese court ruled on Wednesday that it is unconstitutional not to allow same-sex couples to marry, setting a precedent in the only G7 nation not to fully recognize same-sex partnerships.
The district court’s decision, the first in Japan on the legality of same-sex marriage, is a major symbolic victory in a country where the constitution still defines marriage as based on “mutual consent of both sexes”.
Following the decision, plaintiffs and supporters unfurled rainbow flags and banners in front of the court.
While a new law will be needed before same-sex marriage can actually take place – which may take some time in a socially conservative Japan – the plaintiff’s lawyer called the ruling “revolutionary”, while LGBT activists considered it life-changing.
“Its value is absolutely immeasurable,” said 44-year-old Gon Matsunaka, head of the Marriage for All Japan activist group and representative of Pride House Tokyo.
“Before the decision was announced, we did not know this was what we were going to get and I’m just happy.”
While Japanese law is considered relatively liberal by Asian standards, social attitudes have kept LGBT society largely invisible in the world’s third largest economy. Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019.
Under the current rules in Japan, same-sex couples are not allowed to marry legally, they cannot inherit their partner’s assets – for example, the house they may have shared – nor do they have parental rights over their partner’s children.
Although partnership certificates issued by individual municipalities help same-sex couples to rent a place together and have the right to visit hospitals, they still do not provide the same full legal rights that heterosexual couples enjoy.
“Sexual orientation cannot be changed or chosen by a person’s will,” the decision states. “It’s discriminatory treatment … that they can not even get any of the legal benefits that heterosexuals do.”
Sapporo District Court dropped the claim for damages from the six plaintiffs – two couples of men and one of the women – who had asked the Japanese government to pay 1 million yen ($ 9,168.42) each in recognition of the pain they suffered by not being able to legally marry.
But Takeharu Kato, the plaintiff’s lawyer, called the verdict overall “revolutionary”, while urging parliament to quickly start working on a law to allow same-sex marriage.
“We commend this decision for taking up the complainants’ serious appeals,” the lawyer said at a news conference.
Sapporo’s courts have ruled that denying same-sex marriage is a discriminatory act based on no logical reason, and is contrary to Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution! This is an important step towards marriage equality in Japan! https://t.co/vz6PanwOii
– Rai @ Clown Hours full time (@raikamudapon) March 17, 2021
Same joys, same problems
Similar cases are currently being heard in four other courts around Japan and this decision may indirectly affect their results.
“Just because the gender of the person we love is different, we can not get married. We live the same life as heterosexuals, have the same problems and the same joys,” said one of the plaintiffs, a woman known simply as “E”.
“Even if our lives are exactly the same, the nation would not recognize this.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference that he had not read the ruling in detail but that the government would “closely monitor” the results of the other court cases.
While homosexual sex has been legal in Japan since 1880, social stigma means that many have not even reached out to their families. The Japanese decision also came a few days after the Vatican said priests could not bless same-sex unions.
Some in the business world say that Japanese rules that do not allow same-sex marriage harm the country’s competitive advantage by making it difficult for companies, especially foreign companies, to attract and retain highly-skilled workers in an increasingly international economy.
Tokyo residents also welcomed the decision, saying it was time for a change.
“Japan has always been conservative, but today things are getting more open,” said 60-year-old dentist Kyoko Enomoto. “I think it will open a lot more from now on.”