• Emma Shapiro

Japan’s Move Towards Marriage Equality

Thanks to the Sapporo District Court, a monumental step towards inclusivity in Japan occurred.


A ruling from Japan’s Sapporo District Court justified the right to same-sex marriage under the country’s constitution. It should be noted that the Sapporo District Court’s ruling did not legalize same-sex marriage; the decision was that legally preventing same-sex marriage violates the constitution, but no concrete LGBTQ+ rights were established. The ruling also does not apply to all of Japan, only the Sapporo district. Nevertheless, the decision is still a symbolic precedent-setter for future extension of LGBTQ+ rights, which have otherwise been lacking in Japan.

This is not the first time a court case has dealt with Japan’s failure to recognize the legitimacy of same-sex couples. Haru Ono, an artist and an activist, experienced first-hand the problems of Japan’s failures to recognize the legal status of same-sex parents. Ono took her and partner Asami Nishikawa’s son to the hospital, but the staff refused to allow Ono to accompany her son because they refused to acknowledge her parentage.


Japan’s decision to deny equal rights to parents of the same sex prevents the possibility for a partner to receive full-custody after a death. It unleashes all kinds of unnecessary and burdensome questions that partners should not have to worry about such as “what will happen if the biological mother dies?”


Ono again experienced the pressures of this discrimination after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was not allowed to become the legal dependent of partner Nishikawa, which was necessary since Ono could no longer work.


In February of 2021, Ono along with 12 other couples sued the Japanese government for the right to marry in Sapporo District Court. The couples felt more compelled to do so given the rise of public support for LGBTQ+ rights. In recent years, there has been a slow incremental relaxation to the concept of same-sex marriage.


In 2009, for example, the Justice Ministry began distributing certificates that gave a person who met the qualifications of being single and of a legal age the ability to marry someone of the same sex. Six years later, Tokyo’s Shibuya and Setagaya wards started issuing partnership certificates, informally recognizing same-sex unions as equal to marriage. These certificates grant same-sex couples the right to co-own a house and have hospital visitation rights.


Yet, because these certificates were not legally binding documents, they still seemed to symbolize an internalized homophobia present in Japan’s legal code. Within Japan, there are a variety of laws and regulations that explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage and give advantages to heterosexual couples. For example, some heterosexual couple are given financial incentives and an edge in family building because same-sex couples are prohibited from adopting in Japan.


Nevertheless, the people of Japan are coming to recognize the importance of inclusion and its positive reflection on Japan as a developed nation. Former defense minister and member of the Liberal Democrat Party Tomomi Inada has publicly said that she is simply trying to promote understanding of the LGBTQ+ community, which has made her appear more liberal than her conservative counterparts expected. However, in Inada’s words “It’s a tough situation for me, but I think it’s a human rights issue and nothing to do with being conservative or liberal.”


“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.’” Judge Takebe said during the ruling. The court’s decision shows a move towards acceptance of same-sex marriage, given that even the idea of suing the government was continually advised against prior to this year. It should, however, be noted that Judge Tomoko Takebe refused to award the couples damages because of the argument that the government could not be held liable for the lack of LGBTQ+ marriage inclusion.


Public support for same-sex marriage in Japan has risen in recent years, due to international movements and an increased awareness for LGBTQ+ equality. Nearly 80 percent of people under 60 currently support same-sex marriage. The high support of same-sex marriage has also pushed large corporations to support the movement and effectively depoliticize it.


Despite growing public support, the Japanese federal court system still maintains an institutional bias against same-sex marriage. Many members of the Japanese court system refuse to challenge the structure of Japanese culture and make inroads on the country’s agreed upon status of same-sex marriage. Japan’s traditionalist culture maintains a rigid and internalized opposition to against homosexuality. Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven (G7) that lacks acknowledgement towards same-sex partnerships.


Such an intense stigma appears to come from Japan’s strong patriarchal societal structure. Japanese family remains committed to a gendered delegation of roles in which the husband acts as the respectable breadwinner while the dutiful wife provides for the children and manages the household. For generations, Japan has operated under this value system which epitomizes the nuclear family model.


In addition to the nuclear family model, the extended family also remains a crucial part of Japan’s societal structure. There is a sense of loyalty that Japanese citizens feel towards their entire family unit, stemming from the country’s 19th century aristocratic tradition which prioritized the kazoku or “flower family.” Many still prioritize “the kazoku,” meaning that any one person’s decision has to benefit and positively reflect on the entire family.


The primacy of “the kazoku” seems to be a large factor in the stigma against LGBTQ+ liberation in Japan. In 2015, Hiroshima Shudo University conducted a study that found that 51 percent of respondents supported the idea of same-sex marriage but were less inclusive if it affected someone in their family.


Many public figures and citizens alike see same-sex marriage as a threat to this staple of Japanese culture. MP Mio Sugita and other anti-LGBTQ traditionalists assume that being LGBTQ+ is a result of a poor childhood, essentially saying that being gay or lesbian is a way to lash out at one’s family. An unnamed Shinto priest echoed this sentiments, arguing that same-sex marriage was unnatural. Others Japanese traditionalists view same-sex marriage as either sacrilegious or as a hobby that will decrease population growth.


Japan’s culture a palpable and internalized stigma against homosexuality can be seen in its previous court rulings as well. In 2019, the courts rejected three couples' demands for 1 million yen ($9,100) to compensate them for the psychological damage they suffered from inequality. These couples accused the government of purposefully neglecting laws to amend same-sex marriage equality. Judge Takebe declined to compensate these couples because the reparations law was not violated.


However, the Sapporo Court ruling flies in the face of such a pervasive cultural stigma. The court’s bold decision has launched a reinvigorated push for LGTBQ+ liberation by those living both in and beyond the district. Most recently, the Human Rights Watch has asked Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to officially introduce legislation to legalize same-sex marriage before the Summer Olympics. Although it will take a long time for Japan to truly break away from its traditionalist roots, the Sapporo Court ruling seems to be an important first step towards a more progressive ideology.