Same-Sex Couples Sue Japan for Equal Marital Rights

Members of the LGBTQ community and allies march at a gay pride parade in Tokyo, Japan in August 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)

Members of the LGBTQ community and allies march at a gay pride parade in Tokyo, Japan in August 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)

On February 14, Valentine’s Day, 13 Japanese same-sex couples simultaneously filed lawsuits against the government for not officially recognizing same-sex marriages, arguing that the Constitution guaranteed them equal marital rights. The couples filed lawsuits from around Japan—six in Tokyo, three in Osaka, three in Sapporo, and one in Nagoya—representing a significant and ambitious push for same-sex marriage legalization in Japan. Each couple is demanding ¥1 million (about $9,000) as compensation.

The lawsuits center on Article 24 of Japan’s Constitution, which states that “marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.” Article 24 does not explicitly ban same-sex marriage; however, the government has historically interpreted the article to mean that same-sex marriage is illegal, and local municipalities have followed by refusing certificates to same-sex couples. Lawyers also claim the ban on same-sex marriage violates Article 14, which states that “all of the people are equal under the law.”

Japan has lagged behind other developed countries in legal progress for LGBTQ rights. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) generally leans socially conservative, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has previously campaigned on restoring traditional family values. Party members have suggested that legalizing same-sex marriage could erode traditional marriage or depress Japan’s shrinking birth rate even further.

The LDP released a statement in 2016 on the issue, reaffirming that same-sex marriage was prohibited under the Constitution and that any consideration of a revision to the Constitution “is a problem related to the foundation of the family and we believe that it is necessary to give the issue extremely careful consideration.”

The LDP’s consensus contrasts with public opinion polls, which show that same-sex marriage receives majority support from the populace. Supporting same-sex marriage is especially popular with younger generations: a poll from last month by advertising company Dentsu Inc. found that 78.4 percent of people between the ages 20 to 59 support same-sex marriage.

Japan’s position on same-sex marriage has even seemed to impact business and commercial interests: last August, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan released a statement calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage, citing the loss of talented LGBTQ individuals who choose to work in countries with better legal protections. Public opinion combined with increasing visibility and pressure from business groups and activists in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics suggest the increasing untenability of the LDP’s position.

In the face of the hostile political sphere and the societal pressure to conform to a traditional family model, plaintiff Kenji Aiba noted that he was scared about the consequences of coming out and filing the lawsuit, but he and his partner carried on for those “who are too afraid of coming out because of discrimination and prejudice that we still face.”

“It will be our dream comes true if our marriage certificate is accepted one day,” Aiba said. “We want to make that happen.”