Japan court rules against same-sex marriages

An Osaka court rejected arguments made by same-sex couples seeking marriage equality. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO – An Osaka court ruled on Monday (June 20) that Japan’s ban on same-sex marriages was constitutional, despite a landmark verdict in Sapporo last year having found the opposite.

The two judgments exemplify how the idea of same-sex matrimony remains divisive in the only Group of Seven country that upholds a ban on such marriages. Across Asia, only Taiwan has legalised marriage between people of the same gender so far.

Another three decisions are pending before the courts in Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka, with the Tokyo District Court verdict due in November.

A district court in Sapporo ruled in March last year that not allowing same-sex marriages amounts to an unconstitutional violation of the right to equality, sparking hopes that the growing momentum can lead to a paradigm change.

There has been rising support for same-sex marriages in opinion polls – one by the Asahi newspaper last year showed 65 per cent in favour.

More than 200 municipalities nationwide now recognise same-sex partnerships since the first ordinance certifying such unions as “equivalent to marriage” was introduced in Shibuya ward in Tokyo in 2015.

Last week, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly unanimously passed a Bill to allow applications for same-sex partnerships from October. 

Tokyo is the ninth to enact a prefecture-wide partnership system, with the others being Aomori, Akita, Ibaraki, Gunma, Mie, Osaka, Saga and Fukuoka. This means that more than half of Japan’s population is now covered by such a system.

Same-sex partnerships break down barriers in allowing access to services, but differ from a legal marriage in that couples will not get the right to inheritance or child custody, while foreign partners cannot qualify for a spousal visa.

Several lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have lobbied for same-sex marriages. However, headwinds within the conservative party blocked an envisioned law to “promote understanding” and “discourage discrimination” against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) community ahead of the “Diversity Olympics” in Tokyo last year.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told the Diet in January that the question of same-sex marriages “relates to the very foundation of what a family means in Japan, and must be considered extremely carefully”.

The sanctity of what a family unit traditionally means for Japan has come under increasing pressure.

Heterosexual couples are fighting for the right to keep their surnames after marriage, with Japanese law requiring that couples share the same family name.

The government’s White Paper on gender equality last week also showed that as many as one in four singles in their 30s have no intention of tying the knot, due to reasons such as a loss of freedom and financial burdens.

The report also noted that the number of marriages last year dropped to a post-war low of 514,000.

In Osaka on Monday, District Judge Fumi Doi struck down a civil claim by three same-sex couples for a combined six million yen (S$62,000) in damages, citing “unjust discrimination” in their inability to get married.

The plaintiffs argued that the ban violates Article 14 of Japan’s Constitution, which guarantees that everyone is “equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination”.

Citing the Sapporo court ruling, they said this should take precedence over Article 24, which states that marriages are based on the “mutual consent of both sexes”.

But District Judge Doi said that Article 24 does not presuppose same-sex marriages in ruling that the current failure to recognise same-sex marriages “cannot be considered a violation of the Constitution”.

But she added: “From the perspective of individual dignity, it can be said that it is necessary to realise the benefits of same-sex couples being publicly recognised through official recognition.

“Public debate on what kind of system is appropriate has not been thoroughly carried out.”

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