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Same-sex Marriage in Japan

According to the Mainichi Shimbun article on July 5, 2019, a same-sex (male) couple filed a notice of marriage with a ward office in Fukuoka City on that same day. The city is expected to reject their registration, and the couple say they will initiate legal action against the state at Fukuoka District Court claiming for damages, presumably, arguing that not allowing a same-sex marriage is a breach of freedom of marriage and/or equality under the law guaranteed under the Constitution (Articles 24 and 14 respectively).

LGBT boom and the partnership system

This action seems to be one of a series of similar lawsuits filed at four other District Courts including Tokyo District Court in February and will be the first of its kind in Fukuoka and Kyushu. This movement as a whole can be understood as a product of the LGBT boom in society in recent years.

I am surprised that the term “LGBT” has spread across Japanese society in such a short period, say, the last two or three years. It may be because businesses see LGBT as a potential market and promoted the term, and the speed of communication has become much faster in the internet age.

During that period, several local governments, including Fukuoka City, have introduced a “partnership system” whereby same-sex couples can receive a certificate. This year, Kitakyushu City will become the 24th municipality to adopt the same system. The “partnership system” is, however, backed only by a guideline, not a law, and therefore gives no legal status to same-sex couples. Without legal status, neither of them will be treated as a dependent for tax exemption, health insurance, pension, succession, and more.

Global and local context

As you may know, same-sex marriages are already legalized in many countries beginning in the Netherlands in 2001. In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled for same-sex marriage to be legal in all the states (37 states of 50 states had legalized by then). On May 14, 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.

The couples introduced at the beginning of this article must have been encouraged by what happened in Taiwan, where the concept of the family is closer in Japan than those in Western countries. While the concept of “ie” (family system) was abolished in the Japan Civil Code in 1947 (there had been “ie” as a system between “individual” and “state” until then), people’s mindsets have been cultivated for centuries and will not change overnight. Some remain even today as one of the most conservative parts of Japan (the family registry is a trace of the system). Therefore, achievement in Taiwan has a special meaning for Japan.

Still, a long way to go

These lawsuits will reach the Supreme Court of Japan regardless of the first results at an appellate court. While the recent poll indicates that a tiny majority supports same-sex marriage, it seems doubtful that Japanese courts will take initiatives to change the definition of “family” now.

Anyway, if we look at world trends, it will be a matter of time to accept this new relationship. We need to oversee the progress of the lawsuits.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure that the information on this article is accurate at the time of posting, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ. If you do require advice or wish to find out more about the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

Text by: Atty. Atsushi Miyake of Miyake Law, July. 2019.
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Fukuoka City
Published: Jul 19, 2019 / Last Updated: Jul 14, 2020

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