TOKYO (AP) – A Japanese court ruled for the first time on Wednesday that same-sex marriages should be allowed under the country’s constitution, a moral victory that has no immediate legal ramifications but could aid legalization efforts.
The Sapporo District Court stated that sexuality, like race and gender, is not a matter of individual preference. Hence, it cannot be justified to prohibit same-sex couples from receiving benefits for heterosexual couples.
“Legal benefits arising from marriages should benefit both homosexuals and heterosexuals alike (asterisk), according to the court. This is evident from a copy of the summary of the judgment.
Judge Tomoko Takebe said in the ruling that not allowing same-sex marriages was in violation of Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution, which forbids discrimination based on “race, creed, gender, social status or family origin”.
The court heard a case of three same-sex couples seeking government compensation for the troubles they had in not being able to legally marry. The court declined to financially compensate the plaintiffs.
The court’s decision has no immediate legal effect and same-sex couples are still not allowed to marry. Even so, activists say the ruling is a major victory that could affect similar court cases and aid their efforts to push for parliamentary debate and law changes to make same-sex marriage possible.
Cabinet chief Katsunobu Kato told reporters that the government disagreed with Wednesday’s decision. He said the government is aiming for a society that is more tolerant of diversity, but did not say how it would react to the ruling other than monitor pending lawsuits.
In front of the court, plaintiffs’ attorneys and their supporters held up rainbow flags and a banner that read, “A great first step towards equality.”
“I hope this ruling is a first step for Japan to change,” said one woman who identified only as “Plaintiff No. 5”.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs said they wanted to appeal the verdict as it would not hold the government responsible for the damage claimed.
“We need to make it clear that Parliament has left the unconstitutional situation alone by relinquishing its legislative obligations and letting them take immediate action,” they said in a statement.
Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven – a group of large industrialized nations – where same-sex marriages are not legal. But it’s not an outlier in Asia, where Taiwan is the only place where same-sex marriages are legal after legislation was passed in May 2019.
While support for LGBTQ people in Japan increases, discrimination persists. In a society where pressure to conform is strong, many LGBTQ people hide their sexuality and fear prejudice at home, at school or at work.
For same-sex couples, there are many specific legal obstacles that married couples do not face. Same-sex couples cannot inherit their partner’s homes, property, or other assets, nor have parental rights over children. More and more municipalities have passed “partnership” ordinances to make it easier for same-sex couples to rent apartments, but these are not legally binding.
Japan’s refusal to grant spousal visas to spouses of same-sex couples legally married abroad is a growing problem, forcing them to be temporarily separated.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan last year urged Japan to legalize same-sex marriages, saying talented LGBTQ people would choose to work elsewhere, making the country less competitive internationally.
Four other lawsuits similar to the one resolved on Wednesday are pending in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.