A court in Japan’s capital has upheld a ban on same-sex marriage but said a lack of legal protection for same-sex families is a violation of their human rights.
Japan is the only G7 country that does not allow same-sex marriage and its constitution defines marriage as based on the mutual consent of both sexes.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the Tokyo district court said the ban is constitutional, but added that “the current lack of legal framework allowing same-sex partners to become families poses a serious threat and hindrance” to individual dignity .
This creates an “unconstitutional situation”, according to the court.
Nobuhito Sawasaki, one of the lawyers involved in the case, called the decision “quite a positive statement”.
“While marriage between a man and a woman remains, and the ruling supported this, it also said that the current situation without legal protections for same-sex families is not good, and suggested that something should be done about it,” he said. he the Reuters news agency.
Japan does not allow same-sex couples to marry or inherit each other’s assets, such as a shared home, and denies them parental rights to each other’s children – even hospital visits can be difficult. Although municipal partnership certificates cover about 60 percent of Japan’s population, they do not give same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
The ruling in Tokyo promises to be influential as the capital has excessive influence over the rest of Japan.
It had been eagerly awaited after hopes were sparked by a 2021 ruling in the city of Sapporo that the same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, though another decision in Osaka in June upheld the ban.
The eight plaintiffs in the Tokyo case had said the ban violated their human rights and sought damages of 1 million yen ($7,215), which the court rejected.
“This is hard to accept,” said Gon Matsunaka, head of the activist group Marriage for All Japan.
Both heterosexual and same-sex couples should be able to benefit equally from the marriage system, as everyone is equal under the law, he added. “It [the ruling] clearly stated that this is not possible.”
Still, recognizing that same-sex families lacked legal protection was “a big step,” he said.
‘This is just the beginning’
Prosecutors, who unfurled a banner reading “A Step Forward for Marriage Equality” after the verdict, said they were encouraged.
“There were parts of this that were disappointing, but parts of it gave me hope,” said one, Katsu, who only gave his first name.
With two cases still pending in Japan, activists and lawyers are hoping that an accumulation of court decisions in support of same-sex marriage will eventually prompt lawmakers to change the system, even if it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s conservative ruling party has not yet revealed any plans to review the matter or propose changes, but several senior members support same-sex marriage.
Plaintiff Chizuka Oe said she hoped Wednesday’s ruling would stimulate debate in Japan’s parliament.
“I was happy that the ruling recognized that we have the right to be family,” she told a news conference, adding that her partner of more than 20 years is “my priceless family, no matter what anyone says.”
Oe said the battle would continue until real progress was made. “This is just the beginning,” she said.
Amnesty International also called the Tokyo court’s recognition of the right of same-sex couples to have a family “a cause for hope”.
“This is not the ruling the LGBTI community wanted, but it is still an important step forward for same-sex couples and LGBTI rights in Japan,” said Boram Jang, Amnesty’s East Asia researcher. “Nevertheless, much more needs to be done to combat discrimination against LGBTI people in Japanese society. It is time for the government to change course in the field of LGBTI rights.”
In recent years, Japan has taken small steps toward embracing sexual diversity.
Tokyo this month began issuing certificates recognizing same-sex couples, allowing them to apply for social housing in the same way as married couples, access medical records and name beneficiaries in auto and life insurance policies. Since 2015, more than 200 smaller cities have taken similar steps, but they are not legally binding and still not the same as marriage.
The situation has limited the talent pool for global companies, say groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
“When they think about the future of their lives, they don’t see anything in Japan,” said Masa Yanagisawa, head of frontline services at Goldman Sachs bank and a member of the Marriage for All Japan group.
“So they’re moving to friendlier jurisdictions, like the United States.”
The Tokyo court ruling came a day after the US Senate passed a same-sex marriage protection law and Singapore lifted a ban on gay sex, but limited prospects for legalizing same-sex marriage.