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Most Tokyo wards less keen on recognizing same-sex unions

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Staff Writers

Most of Tokyo’s wards are hesitant to follow Shibuya and Setagaya in proposing or considering certificates to declare same-sex unions as having equivalent-to-marriage status, a survey by The Japan Times has found.

In the survey of the capital’s other 21 wards, 18 said they don’t intend to issue such certificates and two — Koto and Suginami — declined to answer.

Responding to a separate question on whether the ward governments are considering measures to recognize same-sex unions other than through certificates, 19 said no, with some citing legal hurdles and lack of demand. Suginami Ward declined to answer.

Standing alone in both questions was Bunkyo Ward.

Bunkyo officials said the ward is exploring measures to recognize same-sex partnerships, including certificates similar to the one proposed by Shibuya, based on an ordinance adopted in November 2013 to promote gender equality and eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation.

On whether measures are in store to better protect members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, nine wards answered yes. Those were Minato, Shinjuku, Bunkyo, Taito, Shinagawa, Suginami, Toshima, Itabashi and Nerima. Most of the measures are educational events targeting both the public and ward employees.

Earlier this month, Shibuya unveiled what was widely hailed as a trailblazing proposal to issue certificates recognizing same-sex unions as “equal to marriage.” Despite their legally nonbinding nature, the certificates, if approved by the municipal assembly, are expected to make life significantly easier for LGBT residents in a nation where no legal framework exists to recognize same-sex marriage.

Although acknowledging the importance of safeguarding the rights of sexual minorities, the survey shows many wards are either wary or critical of Shibuya’s move.

Officials in Nerima, for example, said the ward is skeptical about how effective Shibuya’s proposal will be and plans to instead opt for prioritizing educational efforts to eradicate public prejudice.

Nakano Ward, which offers housing assistance to a variety of disadvantaged residents, including sexual minorities, termed the Shibuya proposal as “ineffective.” It added that it believes measures to help LGBT people at the ward level “would have no effect in reality unless the state government changes the existing laws.

Arakawa Ward, too, cited legal barriers. Article 24 of the Constitution, which defines marriage as “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes,” is often interpreted as ruling out same-sex marriage, though some legal experts disagree, saying the clause merely declares the principle of equality between married partners.

“Laws in Japan do not acknowledge same-sex marriage,” a representative from Arakawa Ward wrote. “Our response has been in line with the laws. We have received few requests (to issue certificates recognizing same-sex unions) from our residents, but we will act in accordance with their requests.”

Of the nine wards that expressed a willingness to take LGBT-friendly measures, Shinjuku said it will feature sexual minorities in its periodical publication on gender equality in hopes of boosting public awareness of their existence and situation.

Itabashi, meanwhile, said it will examine measures to protect LGBT residents as it updates a five-year action plan to adopt gender equality policies scheduled to start in April 2016.

Most of the wards that said no protective LGBT measures were on their legislative agendas said they will wait to see how Shibuya’s initiative plays out.

Although Japan made a major stride toward achieving equality for sexual minorities in 2003, when it enacted a law that allowed people diagnosed with gender dysphoria to change their legal sex under certain conditions, Japanese society as a whole remains fundamentally ignorant of the existence of such people, an official from Koto Ward wrote.

“Likewise, our society sorely lacks understanding of the feelings of gay people. . . . We will decide what we can do as a municipality as we heed their voices, while at the same time trying to raise awareness of the issue,” the ward wrote.