Same-sex couples will continue to remain legally discriminated against in Japan, as the Osaka district court declared that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional. The ruling, made on June 20, noted that Japan’s constitution defines marriage as between “both sexes.”
This was a demoralizing result for many LGBTQ rights advocates and same-sex couples in Japan. The Osaka ruling follows the Sapporo district’s unprecedented court ruling in 2021 that declared the failure to recognize same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Shamefully, Japan remains the only member of the G-7, a grouping of the world’s wealthiest liberal democracies, where same-sex marriage is yet to be recognized by national law. That remains true, even though an opinion poll conducted last year shows that approximately 65 of the Japanese public support marriage equality.
Such an injustice to the LGBTQ community is arguably due more to the thinking of the conservative government than to social views.
The ban on same-sex marriage is a reflection of the tendency in Japanese politics to steadfastly champions laws and policies that uphold anachronistic values. To conservative politicians, the nuclear, heteronormative, and reproductive family model is considered to be the foundation of Japan’s social order, stability, and economic success. While this family model is no longer feasible in the post-industrial economy, it is still thought to engender prosperity, as it did during the period from post-World War II until the early 1990s, which is dubbed the Japanese economic miracle. While some LDP politicians such as Noda Seiko and Kono Taro are advocating for greater social diversity and inclusivity, the majority remain intractable in their adherence to the outdated belief that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
Prejudicial and homophobic comments, thus, are frequently used to rail against increasingly loud calls to legalize same-sex marriage and secure other basic rights — despite the public backlash that ensues from such bigotry. For instance, Okochi Shigeta, a former LDP member, notoriously stated, “What would you do if homosexuals are to come together in Takarazuka and turn the city into a center of HIV infections?” on his official website in an effort to advocate against same-sex marriage in 2015.
More recently, Sugita Mio, a current member of the ruling party, expressed opposition to using taxpayers’ money to foster inclusivity for LGBTQ individuals in a Japanese publication. She claimed her stance is based on a belief that LGBTQ individuals do not reproduce and thus are not productive citizens. Sugita’s further assertion that sexual preference is something that individuals could grow out of to become futsu or “normal” is another clear sign that these lawmakers are unwilling to let go of the past.
Another archaic law based on similar principles is the koseki, or the family registration system, stipulated in Article 750 of the Japanese Civil Code. It was enacted in 1896 during the Meiji period with the purpose to protect and preserve the traditional family model. It is this law that famously forbids married couples from keeping different surnames. Like the same-sex marriage ban, repeated challenges to the ban on married couples having different names have been knocked down by courts, and the ruling LDP has showed little appetite to make a legal change, despite growing public discontent.
It appears that most of the LDP lawmakers adhere to the universally fading value that the husband must serve as the family breadwinner while the wife serves her family by bearing children and engaging in domestic work. With this outdated conception of the family, it is thus not surprising that same-sex couples are denied their right to marry, especially as some lawmakers believe the alarming birthrate decline in Japan is somehow induced by the LGBTQ community.
Considering that married couples in Japan are required by law to share a surname – which, in practice, nearly always means the woman changes her name – we should not expect that LDP politicians would accept a bill that legalizes same-sex marriage anytime soon, much less proactively put forward such a bill. Indeed, perhaps to skirt away from ruffling the feathers of either the public or his party members – two groups increasingly at odds over the issue – Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has maintained his seemingly neutral position regarding same-sex marriage, stating that the matter must be carefully considered. Given that he has yet to lay out a single plan for an actual review, however, it seems he merely wants to avoid taking action on the issue. Japan’s sclerotic government is allergic to change.
The current environment in Japan, which legally discriminates against sexual minorities, will continue to have negative impacts, and not just on the marginalized LGBTQ community. Japan’s lack of progress on LGBTQ rights forbodes negative economic prospects for the nation, as more and more foreign businesses are prioritizing inclusivity. If Japan wants to keep its status as a leading nation among liberal democracies – where LGBTQ inclusivity is of key importance – the government must eventually legalize same-sex marriage. The conservative government continuing to stall comes at the cost of narrowing the country’s economic potential and depriving millions of people of their basic human rights.
It is time for the government to let go of the past and look to the future.