When Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward announced in March that it would start issuing same-sex marriage certificates to gay and lesbian couples, much of Japan — and in particular, its LGBT community — stood up and took notice.
The international media, too, has doggedly covered the story, often using it as a starting point before going on to examine the numerous obstacles the lesbian and gay communities still face in Japan.
After all, although Shibuya Ward’s certificates will guarantee couples certain rights within the ward itself, the marriages will not be legally valid nationally, and the ward has no power to force businesses to recognize the couples’ same-sex partnerships.
But are Japanese laws as rigid as some of these reports make out?
True, for now it is not possible for gay couples to get legally married in Japan, nor to have a marriage registered abroad recognized as being on a par with those between heterosexual couples.
However, while things may be moving too slowly in the right direction to satisfy many Japanese same-sex couples, things are considerably better in Japan for those where both partners are not Japanese.
Take French nationals Mustapha Mokrane and Raul Montero, who were joined together in a civil partnership — a union that offers many of the legal benefits of marriage — in Marseille in December 1999. After France legalized gay marriage in 2013, Mokrane and Montero were wed, and they are now registered as a married couple with their local ward office in Tokyo. Mokrane, the executive director of an international scientific program, has a working visa. Montero has a “designated activities” visa that lists him as a dependent of Mokrane.
The couple’s path to this life in Japan began when Mokrane, then working as a geneticist in France, was offered a job in Japan in March 2012. At that point, he immediately began looking at ways for Montero to join him.
Initially turning to the Japanese Embassy in Paris, progress was confusing, with different officials offering different information. Immigration in Tokyo, on the other hand, was more honest about the ambiguities.
“I was told that Japan had no official stance,” says Mokrane. “Recognition of same-sex relationships, including our civil partnership at the time, was still a gray zone as far as the Immigration Bureau was concerned.”
Following their actual marriage in France in November 2013, immigration officials told Mokrane that they could not guarantee that Montero would be issued a spousal or any other form of visa if he applied for one. Instead, says Mokrane, “They suggested that Raul enter as a student or on a working visa and then apply for change of status once he was in the country.”
This he did, and the rest is history: Montero was eventually given a designated-activities visa, with the accompanying certificate of residence status listing him as a dependent of Mokrane, in much the same way as many foreign spouses of heterosexual non-Japanese residents are.
Originally a communications officer for an NGO, Montero is now working freelance on website development, and the couple live near Ogikubo in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward.
At the local ward office, Mokrane surprised the staff by trying to register his same-sex spouse on his certificate of residency in the first place, but then he himself was surprised by the help he received: The head of the section first offered to register them as a household of two residents, but then suggested they apply as a married couple, providing they had a translated document proving a ceremony had taken place. Mokrane says the city official was “very efficient and sensitive.”
There have been a number of practical day-to-day benefits of Montero now being registered as Mokrane’s husband at the ward office. Mokrane’s company pays him a dependent allowance, and Montero was also able to get a family-member credit card on Mokrane’s account at CitiBank (the bank in Tokyo said it was the first time they had issued one to a same-sex partner). And, just in case anything were to happen to Mokrane, he was also able to add Montero to his current rental contract when it was renewed in 2014, something real estate agents will rarely do for nonfamily members.
Yet, as easy as obtaining a visa was in Japan, neither man can return to the country of his birth with a same-sex dependent in tow. Mokrane, originally from Algeria, says he could be fined and potentially face years in jail for being in a same-sex relationship. For Montero, born in Venezuela, although he would not be locked up for his relationship with Mokrane, the laws on same-sex marriage are still “in limbo.”
By comparison, life in Japan as an openly gay couple is surprisingly easy.
“Homosexuality and sexuality in general in Japanese society is open,” says Mokrane. “There is societal and family pressure to conform to social norms at times, but no persecution. We can live freely and we are openly affectionate, but don’t go out to shock people.”
For couples where one partner is Japanese, the other a foreign national, things are not so clear- cut.
Yuki Keiser is a 40-year-old Japanese citizen of Japanese-Swiss parentage, born and raised in Switzerland. She moved to Japan in 2001 but has lived in San Francisco since late 2013 with her now-wife, Shawn, an American citizen and fourth-generation Japanese immigrant.
At the time they first “met” — online in 2010 — Keiser was in Japan working as a writer and photographer, and Shawn, a film producer, was stateside. So, the couple started a long-distance relationship.
Until 2013, the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) meant that even if individual U.S. states recognized same-sex marriages, Keiser would not have been able to move to the States as a spouse of Shawn according to federal law.
“This lasted until June 2013,” says Keiser, “when the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional, requiring the government to recognize same-sex marriages registered in any state where such unions are legal.”
Keiser applied for a green card in October of that year, citing her plan to marry Shawn in December in California.
“Three months later my visa was approved and today we live together in San Francisco,” she explains.
Keiser does, however sometimes think of Japan when considering her future and, when interviewed, she admitted to not being sure about the current state of play in Tokyo.
“I did try and get our marriage recorded on my family register in Japan, but this was refused,” she says. And as is so often the case when dealing with bureaucracy, she says she “couldn’t get a clear answer on the phone.”
However, inquiries made to the Immigration Bureau by a reporter posing as a same-sex foreign spouse of a Japanese citizen seeking a visa did yield clear — albeit ultimately conflicting —answers. In two cases, officials on the bureau’s information line said that a non-Japanese married legally abroad to a same-sex Japanese partner could be granted a standard “spouse of Japanese national” visa upon request, as heterosexual foreign spouses of Japanese citizens are. The officials stressed that confirmation of this policy was not written anywhere on the Immigration Bureau’s website.
The third official contacted, however, suggested applying for a designated-activities visa, with the same-sex spouse to be listed as a dependent of their Japanese partner in the same way Mokrane and Montero are.
In contrast, an Immigration Bureau official contacted by The Japan Times contradicted the information provided by all three immigration help-line staff, saying obtaining any visa based on a same-sex relationship with a Japanese national was impossible, as Japanese law does not recognize same-sex marriages involving Japanese partners.
Regardless of what would-be applicants are told over the phone, this is the official Japanese government line, confirmed Kosuke Oie, an immigration lawyer at the Tokyo Public Law Office.
“In 2013 Immigration issued an internal memo to the effect that same-sex couples could be issued designated-activities visas for their spouse to be shown as a dependent,” Oie says, referring to couples where both partners are non-Japanese legally married overseas. But, he adds, “I am not sure about the (comments from) immigration staff regarding spousal visas being an option for legal same-sex partners of Japanese nationals, as under Japanese law a spouse is always recognized as a member of the opposite sex.”
One Japanese national affected directly by this interpretation of “spouse” is Yukiko Hosomi, a Shizuoka-born university employee who lives in Bristol, west England, with her British partner, Kaz Williams, a local government official.
“Currently there is no way to obtain a visa for my same-sex partner in Japan based on our relationship status,” says Hosomi. “We have been together over 15 years and became civil partners in 2012. We are considering changing this to a marriage, an option that only became possible in December 2014. I have heard of same-sex couples applying for a visa to stay in Japan with both being non-Japanese and getting visas to support this application, but they are being quiet about it for political reasons, it seems. But if it is the case of Japanese and non-Japanese, (the government) won’t do this.
“Some people have suggested (Kaz) could just get a working visa by teaching English, but she is a trained and qualified professional, so we don’t want to compromise her career just for the sake of getting a visa that is only temporary and does not provide stability,” Hosomi says. “I would definitely consider applying for an appropriate visa — if available — as both of us love Japan in so many ways. Also, I have a great concern about my aging parents as I am not able to live there to support them at the moment.”
Without any official figures, it is impossible to know how many Japanese citizens are in same-sex civil partnerships and marriages abroad to foreign partners. However, Keiser and Hosomi’s stories suggest there may be a significant number of Japanese out there who are unwilling to live in Japan while their partnerships are not recognized and their foreign partners are not entitled to the rights afforded to heterosexual couples.
In April, Japanese lesbian actresses Akane Sugimori and Ayaka Ichinose held a highly public — but strictly symbolic — wedding ceremony in front of news crews in Tokyo. Other same-sex marriages have also been held in Tokyo Disneyland and even at a Kyoto shrine, all invalid according to Japanese law.
“We held the wedding ceremony to that it might become easier for others to do the same in the future,” Sugimori said after her ceremony.
Shibuya’s move to grant same-sex marriage certificates is one small step in this direction, but until Japan changes its stance on unions involving its own citizens, same-sex marriages among foreigners carried out abroad will continue to grant non-Japanese gays and lesbians rights in Japan that their Japanese counterparts don’t have.
Additional reporting by Tomohiro Osaki. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org