THEOn Valentine’s Day in 2019, 13 same-sex couples filed lawsuits in four cities in Japan. Their case was simple: they argued that their partnerships were no different from heterosexual couples and that the government’s refusal to recognize gay marriage was against the constitution’s promise to treat everyone equally. This week, a district court in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, was ruled on the side of the three couples who sued there. This was the first such judgment by a Japanese court. It is, as a sign proclaimed by followers outside the courtroom, “a great step forward for marriage equality.”
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But for the time being it is only symbolic. The three-judge panel stated that preventing couples from marrying violated Article 14 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, gender, social status or family origin. However, she also refused to pay plaintiffs damages, arguing that public opinion should move quickly and the government should be given time to legislate on the matter.
Neither the constitution nor laws specifically prohibit same-sex marriages. Some local governments issue documents certifying same-sex partnerships, which can make it easier to find accommodation and visit partners in the hospital. However, the national government does not recognize this and is depriving gay couples of certain advantages of marriage. Japan is not only unbalanced with other rich countries – it is the only G7 member that does not recognize same-sex unions – but also with its former colony, Taiwan, which in 2019 became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage.
Plaintiffs say they will appeal the denial of compensation. Meanwhile, activists plan to use the lower court’s finding to bolster lawsuits in other cities. Cheaper decisions could increase the pressure on parliament to act.
Most voters would welcome that. A 2018 survey found that nearly 80% of people between the ages of 20 and 59 agreed to same-sex marriage. The proportion of people over the age of 20 rose to almost 90%. Since two stations in Tokyo in 2015 were the first local authorities to issue same-sex partnership certificates, 72 others have followed, in which a third of the population lives.
Many business leaders view gay marriage as both an economic and a moral problem. As the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan noted last year in light of the shrinking workforce, “Japanese companies cannot afford to lose in the global competition for the best talent.” Almost 150 companies are part of a “Business for Marriage Equality” campaign, including blue-chip companies such as Fujitsu and Panasonic.
However, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is still against gay marriage. His old-fashioned views on gender equality issues extend to married couples who are still prohibited from maintaining separate surnames. Only 9% of LDP candidates for the Upper House of Parliament in 2019 supported gay marriage. Last month, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide defended the government for supporting “the foundations of the family in this country”. However, the ban on starting a family is a special form of support. ■
This article appeared in the “Asia” section of the print edition under the heading “Inching forward”.