March 17, 2021

Same Sex Marriage Recognized in Japan

From today’s Wall Street Journal.

TOKYO—A Japanese court for the first time said the country’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitution, a pathbreaking decision in a region of the world where most countries forbid gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

One of the plaintiffs, Ryosuke Kunimi, a teacher in his mid-40s who has lived with his partner for nearly 20 years, said he couldn’t stop crying for joy when he heard the ruling in the courtroom on Wednesday. He said discrimination had become an accepted part of life for gay and lesbian people in Japan until now.

“I think the judgment strongly persuaded us that it’s not the way it should be,” Mr. Kunimi said at a news conference. Showing the sensitivity of coming out in Japan, he asked news media present not to show his face.

The government argued that the institution of marriage was established in Japan to protect the right of heterosexual couples to have children and raise them, giving Parliament a rational basis for denying marriage rights to same-sex couples.

A three-judge panel at Sapporo District Court in northern Japan said the ban violated the constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment under the law and Parliament “exceeded the bounds of discretion.” The panel, led by chief judge Tomoko Takebe, said current law was based on now-discredited notions of same-sex attraction as an illness.

“The difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals is nothing more than a distinction in sexual orientation that people do not choose of their own will and cannot change,” the decision said. “No matter what sexual orientation people possess, there is no distinction in the legal privileges they enjoy.”

However, the court said the plaintiffs weren’t entitled to damages because it said Parliament needed more time to rectify the situation. A lawyer for the couples said they would appeal that part of the ruling as a way to accelerate the debate in Parliament.

Masateru Shiraishi, a local politician in a northern ward of Tokyo, said he didn’t believe in discrimination against gay and lesbian people, but he said he was concerned the focus on their marriage rights would exacerbate Japan’s falling birthrate.

“As a Japanese person, I have no intention of creating a society that would make the Japanese extinct. I am engaging in politics to prevent that from happening,” said Mr. Shiraishi.

While the debate over same-sex marriage was in full swing as far back as the 1990s in the U.S. and Western Europe, it has come to the forefront in Asia only in recent years.

Taiwan’s legislature in 2019 approved Asia’s first same-sex marriage law, following a similar move by Australia’s Parliament in 2017 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

The Japanese court left open the possibility of Parliament creating a separate system of marriage or union for same-sex couples. It said that if such a system provided same-sex couples with legal protections that married heterosexual couples enjoy, it might pass constitutional muster.

On Valentine’s Day in 2019, 13 couples in various parts of Japan filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the country’s rejection of same-sex unions. The Sapporo court that ruled Wednesday was the first to render a decision, and district courts in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya are also set to rule on the issue. Government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said after Wednesday’s ruling that the government continues to believe the current system is constitutional.

In Japan, same-sex relationships are legal, but the law doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“In Japan, discrimination is often passive-aggressive. Ignoring people is the modus operandi,” said Masa Yanagisawa, who works at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Tokyo office and helps lead the investment bank’s Asia-Pacific council on LGBTQ+ issues.

Still, the court ruling pointed to changing attitudes as one justification for its ruling. A 2018 survey by advertising firm Dentsu Inc., found 78% of respondents said they fully or partially approve of legalizing same-sex marriage. It found that about one in 11 people in Japan self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Some cities including Osaka and Sapporo and a few wards in Tokyo recognize same-sex unions, but the designation isn’t legally binding. Some large Japanese companies have established antidiscrimination measures in the workplace.

The lack of a broader legal grounding for gay and lesbian rights “affects messaging in terms of attracting a diverse workforce,” said Mr. Yanagisawa of Goldman Sachs.

—Peter Landers contributed to this article.

Write to Suryatapa Bhattacharya at and Chieko Tsuneoka at

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