Japanese court rules in favor of same-sex marriage

Though the ruling has no immediate legal effect, lawyers and their supporters said it was “a big first step toward equality.” Japan is the only country G7 country where same-sex marriages are not legal.

Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News/AP
Lawyers and supporters hold rainbow flags and a banner that reads "Unconstitutional judgment" outside Sapporo District Court in Sapporo, northern Japan, March 17, 2021. Activists are hopeful the court ruling could pave the way for legalizing same-sex marriages in Japan.

A Japanese court for the first time ruled Wednesday that same-sex marriage should be allowed under the country’s constitution, a moral victory that does not have any immediate legal consequence but could bolster efforts for legalization.

The Sapporo District Court said sexuality, like race and gender, is not a matter of individual preference, therefore prohibiting same-sex couples from receiving benefits given to heterosexual couples cannot be justified.

“Legal benefits stemming from marriages should equally benefit both homosexuals and heterosexuals,” the court said, according to a copy of the summary of the ruling.

Judge Tomoko Takebe said in the ruling that not allowing same-sex marriages violates Article 14 of the Japanese constitution, which prohibits discrimination “because of race, creed, sex, social status, or family origin.”

The court was hearing a case brought by three same-sex couples who were seeking government compensation for the difficulties they had to suffer from not being able to legally marry. The court declined to financially compensate the plaintiffs.

The court’s ruling has no immediate legal effect and same-sex couples are still not allowed to marry. Nevertheless, activists say the ruling is a major victory that could influence similar court cases and help their efforts to push for parliamentary debate and changes to the law to allow same-sex marriage.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters that the government disagreed with Wednesday’s ruling. He said the government seeks to achieve a society more tolerant to diversity, but did not say how it would respond to the ruling, except that it will watch pending court cases.

Outside the court, the plaintiffs’ lawyers and their supporters held up rainbow flags and a banner saying “a big first step toward equality.”

“I hope this ruling serves as a first step for Japan to change,” said one woman who only identified herself as “Plaintiff No. 5.”

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs said they planned to appeal the ruling, because it did not hold the government responsible for the damages sought.

“We need to make clear that the parliament has left alone the unconstitutional situation by abandoning its legislative duties, and have them take action promptly,” they said in a statement.

Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven – a group of major industrialized nations – where same-sex marriages are not legal. But it is not an outlier in Asia, where Taiwan is the only place where same-sex marriage is legal following legislation passed in May 2019.

While support for LGBTQ people is rising in Japan, discrimination persists. In a society where pressure for conformity is strong, many LGBTQ people hide their sexuality, fearing prejudice at home, school, or work.

For same-sex couples there are many specific legal barriers they face that married couples don’t. Same-sex couples cannot inherit their partner’s houses, property, and other assets or have parental rights to any children. More municipalities have enacted “partnership” ordinances so same-sex couples can more easily rent apartments, but they are not legally binding.

Japan’s refusal to issue spouse visas to partners of same-sex couples legally married overseas has been a growing problem, forcing them to temporarily live separately.

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 decided Wednesday are pending in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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