LGBTQ rights in Japan suffered a blow on June 20, when a court in the country’s third-most populous city ruled that freedom of marriage in the constitution referred only to male-female unions, and that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage was therefore constitutional.
Three couples filed claims for damages of one million yen (or $7,400 per couple) against the Osaka District Court. They claimed their rights to equal and free union had been violated. According to the Associated Press (AP),
The activists say the verdict is disappointing but that the struggle for equality in marriage is not over and they’re making great progress.
“There is momentum in society for change and the LGBT community will not stop,” says Kanae Doi, the Japan director of NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). While conceding that “the judiciary is slow to change and more conservative,” Doi says “Japanese public opinion is already supportive of marriage equality” and “It can take time for the LGBT rights movement to change the existing [legislature] and the judiciary, but it is surely changing.”
Before a ruling on the same-sex marriage in Osaka City Prefecture, June 20, 2022, plaintiffs marched to Osaka District Court
Images by AP/The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Japanese legal system and LGBT rights
The ruling was the second in response to a series of lawsuits filed by more than a dozen same-sex couples at district courts around Japan on Valentine’s Day in 2019. In the first ruling, made in March last year, the Sapporo District Court said Japan’s definition of marriage, which excludes same-sex couples, violated constitutional guarantees of equality.
According to Makiko Terahara, the executive director of the activist group Marriage For All Japan the Osaka plaintiffs have indicated their intention to appeal and the argument will now move to the city’s High Court. According to the AP Akiyoshi Tanaka (a plaintiff) stated at a press conference that he would continue fighting. “We don’t have time to feel discouraged,” he said.
“It has become increasingly important for as many people as possible to raise their voices to have these courts make the right decisions and to have the law revised in the [legislature] as soon as possible,” adds Terahara.
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In most parts of Asia, same-sex relationships aren’t recognized. Taiwan, which became Asia’s first country to legally recognize same-sex marriage, was approved in May 2019. Last week, Thailand made a significant step towards equality in marriage when it approved a bill to legalize gay marriage.
Japan lags far behind its rich-world peers in LGBTQ rights; it’s the only country in the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations that doesn’t fully recognize same-sex partnerships. Japanese law mandates that transgender individuals must undergo surgical sterilization if they wish to have their gender identity legally recognized.
Monday’s ruling is not the first setback for equality in the country in recent years. The activists had hoped that the global attention would encourage the government to adopt a ban on discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. However, some Liberal Democratic Party conservative members reacted negatively to the legislation and it was ultimately defeated by the legislature.
On April 24, 2022 Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2022 Parade was held to support members of the LGBT community.
PHILIP FOONG/AFP via Getty Images
Progress for Japan’s LGBT community
There is still some progress. Tokyo’s metropolitan government approved legislation last week that recognized same-sex partnerships. This makes it the ninth prefecture (and the biggest, at almost 14 million people) to adopt such legislation. It does grant some rights to the same-sex couple, but not full marriage rights.
HRW states that recent years have seen a rise in LGBTQ support due to years of campaigning. That’s especially true of younger Japanese people. A 2021 Pew Research Center report found that more than 92% Japanese aged 18-30 believe homosexuality should be acceptable in society.
TIME was told by activists that the bill had sparked unprecedented public debate about LGBTQ rights even after it failed to pass before the Tokyo Olympics. Over 100,000 people signed petitions calling for passage of the bill. Several large corporations supported it.
Terahara is confident that equal marriage rights will come to pass. Terahara says the number and quality of partnerships has increased tremendously, as well as the number businesses supporting same-sex marital relationships. The number of legislators who support the same-sex marriage cause is also steadily rising.
“We are moving forward,” says Terahara. “Even compared to just five years ago, the progress is remarkable.”
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