A Japanese court has ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage is illegal, a landmark ruling that could usher in a new era in the country for marriage equality.
It’s the first time a court has ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage in Japan, which is the only G7 country that hasn’t recognised same-sex civil unions or marriage.
The case started in 2019, when three couples from Hokkaido prefecture filed a lawsuit seeking 1 million yen ($9,160) in damages for psychological harm caused by the government’s refusal to allow same-sex marriage.
While some parts of Japan issue “partnership certificates,” which give same-sex couples some rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples, Japan does not recognize same-sex unions on a national level.
The government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage violated a provision of the constitution that guarantees fair laws for all, the Sapporo District Court in Hokkaido ruled on Wednesday. The couple’s demands for damages, however, were rejected by the judge. The three couples are among a group of people suing the government in Japan, claiming that the new law on same-sex marriage violates their civil rights and that they should be granted the same legal rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.
“Today’s ruling recognized that we actually exist,” said a plaintiff known by the pseudonym Takashi. “I want a society where sexual minorities have hope and a choice in their future.”
The ruling, according to Kanae Doi, Japan director of the non-profit Human Rights Watch (HRW), would not be enough to legalize same-sex marriage in the country; a Supreme Court decision would be needed, which could take many years.
Alternatively, Japan’s legislature, the Diet, could pass a law authorizing same-sex marriage, but she believes the ruling party has little appetite for doing so. But, she said, Wednesday’s “watershed” decision was still important because it was a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage.
The plaintiffs’ counsel, Takeharu Kato, said he was also moved by the ruling. “I never expected the court to rule so plainly,” says the plaintiff.
In Japan, homosexuality has been legal since 1880, and the country is comparatively liberal in comparison to other Asian countries. Taiwan is the only Asian country that has allowed same-sex marriage.
In 2015, two Tokyo wards passed legislation enabling same-sex couples to receive “partnership certificates,” which give them some of the same rights as married heterosexual couples. Since then, hundreds of cities have passed unofficial laws acknowledging same-sex partnerships, but they don’t provide the same degree of legal protection as heterosexual marriages.
However, activists claim that bigotry still exists in Japan’s LGBTQ culture, and that the country has yet to pass a national anti-discrimination law that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. People have been dismissed from employment because they are gay, according to Doi.
Prior to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, HRW and LGBTQ groups have been urging Japan to pass an Equality Act.
“Japan is really, very behind the times in terms of LGBT legislation,” HRW’s Doi said. “Those who oppose the LGBT Equality Act will be placed under pressure as a result of this historic decision (on Wednesday).”