Tokyo Report

Japan’s Same Sex Couples Sue Government, Demanding Marriage Equality

Same sex couples leveraged Valentine’s Day to pursue marriage equality in Japan.

Japan’s Same Sex Couples Sue Government, Demanding Marriage Equality
Credit: Flickr/ US Embassy Tokyo

On February 14, the international day of love, 13 same sex couples jointly filed lawsuits at district courts across Japan in the fight for marriage freedom. The group argued that banning same sex marriage is a violation of the right to equality guaranteed by the constitution.

The simultaneous class action lawsuits filed in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Sapporo are a landmark in Japan for gay marriage. Article 24 of the constitution stipulates that marriage is established “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.” The government has consistently interpreted the article, which also includes a reference to “husband and wife,” as not providing for the marriage of same sex couples. The family registration law and civil law defines a husband as a male and a wife as a female, thereby prohibiting same sex marriage. But the defense attorney of the plaintiffs argue that the constitutional provision was intended to prevent forced marriage and there isn’t anything expressly prohibiting gay marriage.

The plaintiffs are not only demanding legal reforms but are also suing for compensation of $9,000 each, saying the government’s failure to recognize same sex marriage has caused emotional distress and indignity. At a press conference, one plaintiff gave an emotional plea saying, “I do not want any special rights. I just want to be on an equal starting line.”

If the court grants the appeal, gay marriage in Japan will become a possibility and the couples’ dream to be recognized as family under the law will be achievable in the not-too-distant future. The defense attorneys also anticipate a spike in public awareness that they hope will inspire a movement through litigation.

The campaign to recognize gay marriage has galvanized Europe and the United States. Even in Italy, where the Roman Catholic Church has heavy influence, same sex civil unions were recognized in 2016, providing couples with most legal protections enjoyed by married people. The European Union adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights, prohibiting discrimination against sexual orientation among others, in 2000. Meanwhile in 2001, the Netherlands was the first country to recognize gay marriage.

Almost 20 years later Japan is the only country among the advanced G7 economies that does not allow gay marriage or provide legal guarantees. This can be attributed to Japan’s ultra-conservative society. Japan is a country that emphasizes tradition, with a history of supporting technological advancement. Opinion polls suggest that while young people support gay marriage, politicians and the elderly are resistant to social change. Japan’s history of homosexual intolerance can also be seen from the Ministry of Education’s efforts to cover up teacher guidebooks from 1994 that encourage homosexuality to be treated as a “perverted type of sexual delinquency.”

Since 2015, several municipal governments in Japan have issued same sex partnership certificates in hope of curbing the housing and medical discrimination that same sex couples repeatedly face. In Japan the legal nonrecognition of gay partnerships has led to problems affecting inheritance, residence taxes, and spousal deductions of income tax. Many couples are resentful about the economic handicaps and the denial of common privileges when it comes to compulsory national health insurance premiums. Same sex couples are not entitled to spousal or social insurance deductions and each partner must pay as a separate entity. During medical emergencies where surgery is needed, partners are not consulted for approval and hospital visits are prohibited.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), known for its conservative, right-wing policies, strongly pushes for the continuation of a traditional nuclear family, consisting of mom, dad, and children.  In 2016, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan was in the middle of preparing a bill to revise the civil law enabling same sex marriage. But to counter its progress the LDP produced a brochure criticizing same sex marriage tolerance as incompatible with their beliefs. They declared that “careful consideration is necessary” to devise a same sex partnership system that gives rights equal to same sex marriage. Meanwhile, last year a member of the LDP stirred controversy by stating in a monthly parliamentary magazine that same sex couples have no productivity as they do not produce children.