The so-called culture wars that have reignited in the United States over the legitimacy of gay marriage may influence this year's presidential election despite a general feeling that there are more important issues. The problem with gay marriage as a social issue is that both sides work against their own interests by politicizing it. Conservatives who push for a constitutional amendment to ban it come across as antidemocratic and fanatical, while homosexual couples who flock to San Francisco to get legally hitched reinforce the idea of marriage as a state-approved arrangement.

Conservative extremism has forced gay people and their supporters to embrace the "sanctity" of marriage just as fervently as their opponents do. Gay marriage is seen as a progressive idea, but the institution of marriage is anything but progressive.

Marriage as a legal contract allows the state to regulate what goes on in the bedroom. This is basically the argument put forth by Sumiko Tanaka and Noboru Fukukita, a Japanese couple who live together without the state's blessing and who have an 18-year-old daughter. Because Tanaka and Fukukita are not married, their daughter's out-of-wedlock status was indicated in both their residence certificate (juminhyo) and family register (koseki). They have been fighting to have such designations changed since 1988, and while they've lost lawsuits in court, their efforts have moved the government to change these discriminatory terms. Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa announced last week that children born out-of-wedlock would be designated in family registers in the same way as children born to married couples, though nothing has really changed. Anyone who reads the family register will be able to tell if a child is born in or out of wedlock. The ministry has made the terms less discriminatory, but the register, which codifies parent-child relationships, is unchanged.