Shibuya Ward plans vote on same-sex marriage

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A Tokyo ward has taken a major step toward realizing the dreams of Japan’s same-sex couples by proposing to issue certificates that recognize such relationships as “equivalent to marriage.”

Shibuya Ward pledged the measure as part of a draft statute Thursday to boost gender equality and strengthen human rights for sexual minorities.

The statute will be presented to the municipal assembly in early March. If passed, it will take force on April 1, with the certificates appearing sometime in fiscal 2015, said ward official Shigeru Saito.

Shibuya resident Koyuki Higashi, who is lesbian, said she was “over the moon” when she learned about the news.

An LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activist, Higashi said she and her partner would apply for a certificate as soon as they become available.

Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Japan and homosexual couples have long faced discrimination when seeking apartments. Individuals even face difficulty when visiting critically ill partners in hospitals on the grounds that they are not related.

Although not legally binding and still pending approval, the ward’s move could pressure landlords, hospitals and other businesses into treating same-sex couples on a par with their heterosexual counterparts, Saito said.

Ward residents 20 or older could apply. They will be required to complete a contract declaring that each would act as a guardian for the other. The certificates would be canceled if the couples break up.

There have been no moves toward legalizing same-sex marriage in Japan, where the Constitution identifies marriage as “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.”

But as elsewhere around the world, there is considerable demand for recognition. A 2012 survey of 70,000 people by the Dentsu Innovation Institute found that 5.2 percent of people between 20 and 59 said they identify themselves as belonging to the LGBT community.

Openly gay politician Taiga Ishikawa, a former member of the Toshima Ward assembly, hailed Shibuya’s move as a major step forward.

“Cases overseas suggest that local municipalities’ move to grant same-sex couples more legitimate status sometimes affects national policies. So I’m very happy about it,” Ishikawa said.

Shibuya’s proposed initiative is further evidence that municipalities’ long-standing prejudice against LGBT residents is easing, he added.

“Local governments used to behave as if sexual minorities didn’t exist in their communities.”

That attitude seems to be changing. Since July, Yodogawa Ward in Osaka has been campaigning for greater awareness and empowerment of LGBT residents.

Tokyo’s Nakano Ward, home to many LGBT residents, is helping same-sex couples move into apartments with the cooperation of a private real estate agency.

Higashi, the LGBT activist, and her partner, Hiroko Masuhara, became the first same-sex couple to hold a wedding ceremony at the Tokyo Disney Resort in 2013, although the event lacked legal recognition.

“We’re virtually married. But without legal backup, it’s still very difficult to live in this society,” Higashi said.

“Prejudice remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society. But I hope this move will become the first step to turn Japan into a society more accepting of the idea of diversity.”