Valentine’s Day arrived this year with the promise of better things to come for Japan’s LGBT communities. On February 12, Toshitake Kuwahara, mayor of the city of Shibuya, announced that the municipality intended to start issuing “same-sex marriage certificates” (dôseikon shômeisho).
Shibuya, one of 23 special municipalities or boroughs of the metropolis of Tokyo, already has an international profile as one of the wealthiest and trendiest districts of the capital. The enterprising Kuwahara, an independent supported by the LDP and New Komeito, is obviously intent on bolstering this image.
In making his announcement, he stressed that “diversity is essential to vitality” and therefore that it was time to encourage and recognize diversity through the issuance of certificates to same-sex couples. These certificates will provide same-sex couples with public recognition of their relationship, giving them a status “comparable to marriage.”
The proposal to grant same-sex marriage certificates will be submitted to Shibuya’s municipal assembly at some point during the first ten days of March. If things go as planned, it will be agreed by April 1, and the first certificates will be issued, at the very earliest, this summer.
According to officials at Shibuya city hall, the municipal government’s system of certifying same-sex relationships will be a first for Japan. The proposal makes it clear that the establishment of a system for issuing “proof of partnership” to same-sex couples is a natural outgrowth of a long process that aims, amongst other things, to secure equal treatment for women and encourage social diversity.
City officials will seek to have the certificate recognized by real estate agencies and hospitals in particular. In the past, problems have occurred when same-sex couples wanted to move into an apartment together or claim visitation rights in a hospital. In response to these incidents, Kuwahara is hoping to use the mayoral bully pulpit to force real estate agencies and hospitals, as well as other businesses and institutions, to recognize a same-sex couple holding a certificate of same-sex marriage as being in effect a married couple.
In the 2015 municipal budget, 1.9 million yen ($16,000) has been budgeted to cover the cost of setting up a consultation office for those interested in obtaining a certificate.
Although the marriage certificates will have no legal force, the symbolic significance of this move by Kuwahara should not be underestimated. At a press conference following the announcement, the mayor stated that, “in making a diverse society, we ensure vitality. It is quite possible that this message from Shibuya city will spread out and change the country.”
Kuwahara’s announcement has received very positive attention in the LGBQ community. One Japanese man summed things up by saying, “If I meet a good man, I think I’ll move to Shibuya.”
If Kuwahara’s aspiration is realized this man and others in his situation won’t have to move to Shibuya. They will find their rights and relationships recognized throughout Japan.
Jonathan Service is the Okinaga Junior Research Fellow in Japanese Studies at Wadham College, Oxford.