Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has fought to alter the Constitution on matters of security, is less eager to oppose its principles when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Changing the charter to allow gay marriage would require “extremely cautious consideration,” Abe said Wednesday in the Diet. The Constitution “does not envisage marriage between people of the same sex,” he said.

Abe was responding to opposition lawmaker Kota Matsuda, who said a move by Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, toward recognizing same-sex partnerships gives hope to the estimated 5 percent of the population that is gay. The gay marriage movement has growing public support and some political backing.

Abe’s remarks may set off another debate about the wording of the Constitution, as the ruling coalition parties debate legislation to put into practice a reinterpretation of the postwar pacifist charter to broaden the role of the Self-Defense Forces.

“The Constitution does not rule out same-sex marriage, so an interpretation can be made that it is constitutional,” said Mari Miura, a professor of gender and politics at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“Abe and the LDP don’t like the idea of same-sex marriage, but at the same time the issue is gaining momentum,” Miura said, referring to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

While Japan is mainly tolerant of homosexuals, some gay people hide their sexuality from colleagues. Those who don’t can find it difficult to rent apartments and, because they are not recognized as family, may be prevented in some cases from visiting each other in the hospital, Miura said.

Shibuya plans to issue certificates that would afford relationships “equivalency to marriage,” though they wouldn’t have legal validity, according to Shigeru Saito, chief of the ward’s general affairs section.

“The ward wants to use certificates so residents and businesses can understand and consider same-sex couples,” Saito said.

Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward may follow Shibuya’s lead, according to Mayor Nobuto Hosaka, as may the city of Yokohama.

The minor Social Democratic Party advocated same-sex marriage in its policy platform for December’s general election and fielded Japan’s first openly gay candidate. While Taiga Ishikawa lost his race, the author of a book “Where is my Boyfriend?” announced on Twitter on Feb. 17 that he will run to regain his seat in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward Assembly.

“Young people are very much in favor of same-sex marriage, and this will give the issue momentum,” Ishikawa, 40, said of the Shibuya move. “It may encourage more people to come out, especially if any famous artists or athletes also come out.”

Goshi Hosono, runner-up in last month’s election for the leadership of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, has said he supports equal rights for sexual minorities. The Asahi Shimbun said in a Feb. 15 editorial that a broader debate is needed on same-sex marriage.

A poll taken by the Asahi this month found that 52 percent of respondents support Shibuya’s plan to issue certificates to gay couples, while 27 percent oppose it. For legal recognition of same-sex marriage, the figure in support was 41 percent, with 37 percent against.

Business is responding to the potential of the gay market. More hotels have said they welcome same-sex couples, according to the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association. The number of companies with policies respecting the rights of gay employees in relationships or banning discrimination against them has risen to 146 from 114 last year, according to the Toyo Keizai business magazine.

Companies from Alfa Romeo Inc. to SoftBank Corp. and Dentsu Inc. are making forays into gay-oriented marketing in Japan to tap a consumer market estimated last year at ¥6.6 trillion by Qocci, a Tokyo-based consulting company.

Eighteen countries including the U.K., Spain and Argentina have approved same-sex marriage nationwide, according to Freedom to Marry, a U.S. lobby group. While conditions are improving for homosexuals in the West, just last week in Malaysia the federal court upheld opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy conviction.

“Japan is less homophobic than many Western cultures, and there are no religious or cultural barriers to talking about the issue of same-sex marriage,” Sophia’s Miura said. “Changes are afoot and same-sex marriage is now thinkable, but it still may be some time before we see this happen.”

Article 24 of the Constitution states: “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.”

Abe made his case on Wednesday by referencing the current wording of the Constitution. Even so, he is seeking to revise the top law, which hasn’t been changed since it took effect in 1947, to boost Japan’s global security presence. The Cabinet last year approved a reinterpretation of pacifist Article 9.

While many of Abe’s party colleagues agree on dragging their heels on this issue, he may face rising pressure at home. In April last year, first lady Akie Abe joined thousands for an LGBT Pride march in Tokyo.

“We just want to spend time with our partners as normal couples,” said Tokyo-based Minoru Sugiyama, 33, of her female partner. “I feel my life will totally change if gay marriage is eventually allowed.”

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