JAMES HANSON WRITES — Despite being an important industrial nation and beacon of democracy in Asia, Japan still does not recognize same-sex unions. Since 2019, 13 same-sex couples have filed ongoing lawsuits against Japanese city governments, including Tokyo, Sapporo and Osaka. These cases triggered a wave of same-sex couples in other cities to sue for damages and to be legally recognized.
Recently, major headway was made towards the legalization of gay marriage in Japan. Three same-sex couples filed a civil suit against the Japanese state for payment of damages due to unfair denial of government benefits to legally recognized married couples and for infringing on rights guaranteed by the constitution. Specifically, Article 14 of the Japanese constitution guarantees equality under the law and prohibition against discrimination, regardless of sex. On March 10th, the Sapporo District Court was the first to reach a decision by ruling in favor of the plaintiffs-that current laws, depriving gay couples of the legal benefits of marriage, are unconstitutional under Article 14.
Although no compensation was granted, this case represents a huge turning point towards legalization and could provide the pressure needed for Japanese authorities to push legislators for a bill recognizing same-sex unions.
Ironically, the Japanese constitution does not explicitly ban same-sex marriage. Prior to this case, only a few Japanese cities, such as Kyoto and Tokyo Shibuya, issued non-legally binding certificates for same-sex couples, which at least provided some benefits such as access to public housing and hospital visitation rights. Still, many Japanese legislators have not recognized same-sex unions on grounds of technicalities in the Japanese constitution. Article 24 of the constitution prohibits forced marriage, stating that marriage can only occur with the mutual consent of both sexes. The words “mutual consent of both sexes” in the constitution has been traditionally interpreted by the state as marriage between members of the opposite sex.
Interestingly, Japanese society has a unique history regarding same-sex relationships. In pre-modern Japan, such as the Edo period, Nanshoku was a term that described male eroticism or male same-sex relationships practiced by some communities in the samurai class. In addition, Confucian scholarship and Buddhist doctrine, which have long dominated Japanese culture, condemned opposite-sex relationships as disruptive or irrelevant. Japan’s modernization saw many traditions and customs eclipsed by Western values, including negative attitudes toward same-sex relationships. For example, the Meiji Legal Code of 1873 made sodomy a criminal act under Article 266.
Not surprisingly, many LGBTQ Japanese citizens fear going public and facing negative reactions from their families, friends, and coworkers. But there is growing support for same-sex unions, as reported by the Dentsu Lab’s 2018 survey, which showed 72.1 percent of 6,229 people aged 20-59 support, at least to some extent, laws eliminating LGBTQ discrimination.same-
It’s time. With both growing domestic and international support, same-sex marriage has a clear path forward toward recognition.