Shibuya Ward plans vote on same-sex marriage


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.”

  • Oliver Mackie

    How soon till we get comments complaining that “a relationship equivalent to marriage” is an outrage, because it’s not “marriage”?

    • smorgantokyo

      Well, it’s NOT equivalent, but it’s an historic first step toward full marriage equality in Japan. Many of the places in the world where marriage equality has become the law of the land started with civil partnerships being recognized at the local level. Now is the time to pat the Shibuya government on the back for it’s progressive stance so that other wards and cities in Tokyo-to see that it’s safe to offer half a loaf for now without being criticized for not giving the full loaf.

    • Stewart Dorward

      Agreed – this was the exact process in the UK. I haven’t bothered to upgrade but I am glad that others can if they so choose.

  • Oliver Mackie

    First, I heartily agree that this is a welcome development.
    Second, it’s an interesting use of language . Of course the issue with civic partnership for many was that it wasn’t called “marriage” whilst, as far as I’m aware (but I may be wrong) it was legally equivalent to marriage in all legal fields (such as taxation and inheritance) where marriage impacts on the type of rules which apply.
    Now Shibuya has seemingly (I say seemingly as I haven’t researched the issue further than reading this article) gone for a legal status that is actually called “equivalent to marriage” without being called simply “marriage.” In English this would surely be a tautology.

    • Atso Eerikainen

      Shibuya Ward cannot make “differency” to “similarity”, not even as “equivalent” (to marriage). It cannot change the laws of nature. The human beings are created to “men” and “women”.

      In English, there is an other word for “marriage”, namely “matrimony”, which becomes from Latin: “mater” (mother) and “munus” (task). So, the purpose of matrimony is “give birth”. LGBT-marriages cannot give birth.

      When the LGBT-marriages are legal, the next step will be demanding the right for adoption. LGBT-couples want to be families, similar with hetero families. If they cannot receive the right for adoption, they are not equal or equivalent with the hetero families.

      So, the “equivalent to marriage” is nonsense. It does not, however, means that the “marriages” of LGBT people must be illegal. “It is not good for human beings to be alone.”

      • Oliver Mackie

        Yes. We agree.

      • 151E

        Not to nitpick (which is a phrase that pretty much means I will) but, human beings are born biologically “male” or “female” (or rarely intersex), whereas”men” and “women” are social constructs that vary greatly from culture to culture. Furthermore, no marriage (which is simply a socio-economic legal fiction) can give birth; only females can give birth.

        In the same-sex marriage debate, appeals to vague ill-defined “laws of nature”, or Latin derivations of English terms, whether in opposition or support, are absurd and unpersuasive.

        In principal, if one believes in legal equality and the individual right to self-determination, states should not restrict freedoms without widely acknowledged just cause, such as to ensure the protection of life and property. However, as I’m sure you will agree, in the case of same-sex marriage, there is no demonstrable just cause for denying legal recognition.

      • Oliver Mackie

        “In principal, if one believes in legal equality and the individual right to self-determination, states should not restrict freedoms without widely acknowledged just cause, such as to ensure the protection of life and property. However, as I’m sure you will agree, in the case of same-sex marriage, there is no demonstrable just cause for denying legal recognition.”

        I would largely agree with this and, ironically, Japan is in a better position to clear this hurdle more smoothly than Europe or the USA. In Japan, as far as I’m aware, marriage is not something that any religious institution can grant, indeed, I think it can even be said that the government/state/nation does not grant it. What happens in Japan is that a couple registers their decision to be considered a married couple. This registration can only be denied or revoked in hindsight if certain requirements (e.g. not already being in a registered marriage) can be shown not to have been met. In Europe and the US (ta varying extents depending on the country) there are religious institutions (e.g. the Church of England in the U.K.) that retain the power to declare a couple married. The government can also do this of course. What has caused considerable friction in the U.K. is the issue of ‘who decides what marriage means’, as it were. Whilst ultimately politicians can alter the meaning of marriage to include same-sex couples, this runs into opposition from those whose (religious) beliefs pit them against the idea yet whose religious institutions can not now (even though they are legally protected from being obligated to marry same-sex couples) differentiate their style of marriage from that of what the government offers.
        I must confess to having some degree of sympathy with that position. Changing the legal meaning of marriage from convention yet making no differentiation between the new version and the old is somewhat unfair to those who went into the latter under the impression that it was fixed.

      • 151E

        I must confess that I am wholly unsympathetic to those who fret over the adoption of a wider, more inclusive definition of marriage, much as I am unsympathetic to those who resisted universal suffrage under the impression it should be restricted to those privileged by accident of birth. Marriage is simply a social convention, one laden with superstitious/religious overtones for some, but more importantly one that guarantees important legal rights concerning property, visitation, and emergency medical decisions. The relationship I enjoy with my wife is no way altered by who you or others choose to love and make a similar commitment to. Besides, there already exists the qualifying term “same-sex marriage” that differentiates it from the more “traditional” variety. Or, perhaps to placate those with superstitious objections, religious institutions could offer church/mosque/synagogue/temple sanctified marriages in parallel to civil marriage.

      • Oliver Mackie

        “Besides, there already exists the qualifying term “same-sex marriage” that differentiates it from the more “traditional” variety. Or, perhaps to placate those with superstitious objections, religious institutions could offer church/mosque/synagogue/temple sanctified marriages in parallel to civil marriage.”

        Yes, that is exactly what happens in, say, the U.K. But there are still those on the LG side who object that they should be allowed EXACTLY the same thing (not an ‘equivalent’) so actually what you say is somewhat sympathetic to those on the ‘religious’ side, and I laud you for it.

        I am no believer in religion either, but one doesn’t have to be a member of any particular religion to be uncomfortable with marriage being redefined by government whilst already in use by so many on the understanding that it would remain what it was when they adopted it. Whilst being married has reasonable and agreed legal implications within the system of government/law, marriage is ultimately not a government-created in nature but a societal/cultural tradition. This is important to keep in mind. Don’t forget that there have been instances in recent history where ‘the state’ has deemed it it’s own business about what should be happening between couples and within households, something that the LG community should be particularly aware of.

      • Jari Puhakka

        Mistä tämmöinen peruspersu on tänne tiensä löytänyt?
        Ota asioista ensin selvää ja kirjoita sitten noita kristillisfundamentalisisisäisiä mielipiteitäsi.
        Kaikki esittämäsi “argumentit” olivat niin hanurista eli persusta.

  • Wilder

    Liberalism reaching Japan as well. Yay for queerness.

  • Rei

    Thank you Shibuya! I hope that it passes and continues to ramp up the dialogue regarding same-sex unions in Japan.

  • Shiki Byakko

    It’s good to see for the first time in Japan history some attempt for legal recognition. The problem is that this is making a precedent for making laws that ate separate but equal.

    The truth of the matter is that under japanese law same sex marriage is not prohibited. The counter side always cites Article 24 of the constitution as proof that it is prohibited, because of the wording. The problem is that Article 24 do not prohibit same sex marriage, neither attempts to define what marriage is.

    It just says that both sexes have the same rights under marriage, making the marriage an institution were there is no one that is better than someone else based on their sex. On the other hand, Article 13 makes it very clear that all persons should be concidered as individuals under the law, and that their well being is the supreme purpose of ANY law.

    Also Article 14 has a very broad anti discrimination clause which says that all people are equal under the law.

    The reason why it do not happen, is because, one, in the civil code even thou there is no definition that makes the law exclusive to straight couples, many of the points are written implying this.
    But the main reason why people of the same sex cannot marry in japan is because of the Wards not wanting to let people do it.

    A few years ago, I remember that was a ward office that started to make marriage forms without pre determined “Wife” and “Husband” Items, but with check boxes for sex. After that some gay couples tried to marry, but were stopped by the ward’s office.

    This matter is completely up to the ward’s office, they are the ones that could make it happen, but in fact they are the one making the determination that it cannot happen.

    Even MOFA is now allowing same sex married couples to get spouse visa, which makes very clear that the law do not prohibit it.

    If Shibuya really wanted to make it happen, it could just be not being homophobes.

  • Max Erimo

    It is a smal but important first step. Kudos to Shibuya ward.
    Only valid in shibuya Ward. No legal validity. What happens if you want to move for your job?
    As I said a small and important move. Doing away with the juminhyou system would be another step toward equality.

  • Oliver St.John-Mollusc

    Why is there not other names for same gender legal liasons, like Merriage for men, and Worriage for women? then we straights can be happy with our term Marriage!

    • 151E

      While gay men might indeed be happy at the thought of legally sanctioned merryage, I suspect lesbians might feel ill at ease at the prospect of worryage. But why all the fuss and bother over nomenclature? We don’t have separate terms for interracial marriages, nor for when there are significant disparities in age or wealth. Why not keep it simple, and call all legally-recognized exclusive-pair-bondings marriage?