Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward adopts ordinance to recognize same-sex unions


Fumino Sugiyama will finally be able to marry his girlfriend of four years. He couldn’t before, because same-sex marriages weren’t recognized in Japan, and he is legally a woman.

With a landmark vote Tuesday by the Shibuya Ward Assembly in Tokyo, the district became the first locale in Japan to recognize same-sex partnerships as the “equivalent of a marriage,” guaranteeing the identical rights of married couples, including hospital visitations and apartment rentals.

Sugiyama, who runs a couple of restaurants, said he welcomed the move as a key step in starting a long-needed debate about LGBT issues in Japan — a culture that values harmony so much that being different can get downright traumatic.

“We are not out to change the world,” said Sugiyama, 33, who knew of his male identity since he was in kindergarten and had cried as a child because he didn’t want to wear a skirt. “We simply want the right to be with the person we love.”

The new ordinance applies only to Shibuya Ward, and it’s technically not legally binding, though violators will have their names posted on the ward’s website.

Shibuya — with a population of 217,000, including 9,000 foreigners — is also planning an aggressive educational campaign on issues surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Conservatives, including powerful politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have been unwilling to back the initiative, and protest rallies have popped up in Shibuya.

“A great social ramification will be expected from such a decision,” Mari Sato, an LDP member of the ward assembly, said ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “We need much more time to discuss this issue.”

The vote passed, with the majority of the 34 assembly members standing up to show their approval.

Many Japanese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people keep their sexual orientation secret for fear of a social backlash, so the number of people who will take advantage of the change is unclear. But Shibuya is expecting an influx of gay and lesbian people.

The first certificates are expected to be issued in July.

Ward Mayor Toshitake Kuwahara said that accepting diversity matches the friendly, vivacious character of the area — a bustling place known for boutiques, live music and a Silicon Valley-like cluster of startups.

He says young “sexual minorities” live in fear, worrying about their future and grappling with self-doubt. “This is the reality,” Kuwahara he said recently. “The purpose is to realize a society where everyone can live in hope.”

Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Masuhara, a rare visible and vocal lesbian couple in Japan, emerged from the Shibuya Ward office Tuesday, holding up a rainbow banner that said, “Thank you, Shibuya,” in English.

The couple said they moved to Shibuya four months ago just to apply for a same-sex partnership certificate. They have been together for three years, and held a symbolic wedding at Tokyo DisneySea two years ago.

“To marry the same sex is no different from marrying the opposite sex,” said Higashi, 30, adding that she clutched Masuhara’s hand in joy the moment the ordinance passed.

Sugiyama, who was also in Shibuya to celebrate, acknowledged that the ordinance is just a beginning.

He said he struggled growing up as a transgender in Japan and hated going to an all-girls school. He never thought of himself as female, even when he was on the Japanese national women’s fencing team.

It was when he was volunteering, sweeping the streets, that he was befriended by a member of the Shibuya Ward Assembly. Pretty soon, LGBT people were flocking to the volunteer project from all over Japan.

That gradually started raising awareness, recalled Sugiyama, who co-heads an LGBT advocacy group called Tokyo Rainbow Pride.

Sugiyama has had sex reassignment surgery, but under Japanese law he is categorized as a female. This means he would not be able to marry a woman under national law, which does not recognize same sex marriages.

Now he can — in Shibuya.

Still, Sugiyama, who said he plans to have children, turned tearful, reflecting back on the years of pain, especially people he knew who had killed themselves, unable to bear the suffering. He was merely asking society to accept the LGBT lifestyle as an option, he said.

“We are not trying to take away the right of heterosexual couples,” he said. “It is society that must change, not us.”

  • Rei

    Though the certificates are not a true equivalent to opposite sex marriage, at the very least it will help protect the same sex couples in Shibuya as well as help to boost dialogue about the rights of sexual minorities.

    Hopefully, it will lead a number of other locations in Tokyo and around Japan to enact their own anti-discrimination laws. All while putting necessary pressure on PM Abe’s hypocrite administration that can change the interpretation of the constitution to put Japanese in danger, but can’t be bothered to do so when it comes to equality.

  • GBR48

    This promoted the image of ‘Cool Japan’ around the world in news programmes with considerably positive effect, whilst the LDP, sponsors of the official and very expensive ‘Cool Japan’ project, make like Canute and oppose it. I doubt they get the irony.

    The baton now passes to employers and others to recognise these certificates and offer employment benefits accordingly, without waiting for the out-of-touch, backward-looking and discriminatory ancien regime in parliament to crawl belatedly into the 21st century.

    Rather pathetically, the government will probably be the last agency to accept the inevitable.

  • wanderingpippin

    “Sugiyama has had sex reassignment surgery, but under Japanese law he is categorized as a female. This means he would not be able to marry a woman under national law, which does not recognize same sex marriages.”

    Since ten years ago of more, people with GID have been able to change the gender on their koseki (family registration). Would Sugiyama not qualify to do likewise?

    Regardless, this move by Shibuya is welcome indeed.

  • Shiki Byakko

    This is great, now you can get a piece of paper that tells you “You are a couple” and still not get any of the real legal protections of marriage, since this is not even legally binding.

    The really sad thing, is that by the way japan is right now, people are still happy just with this.

    • R0ninX3ph

      I see what you’re saying, but I understand why people are happy. They are happy because they see this as the first step toward Japan actually allowing true same-sex marriages, Japan is incredibly slow to change, and for a ward legislature to adopt this, is pretty darn big…. for Japan.

      • Shiki Byakko

        I’m mad because a lot of people are going to take the stance that “this is enough” instead of pushing for marriage equality.
        I’m gay, and I live in japan, I know the Japanese LGBT community (that isn’t so much a community, but a lot of closeted people who go to hattenbas, a minority who is open, and a even smaller minority inside that group that is actually advocating for marriage equality).

      • Don’t worry, not too long ago being gay was a crime in my country, now things changed a lot and we even got full blown gay marriage. I am sure equal marriage will come to Japan someday man :)

  • Jiru

    It is easy to complain about a small improvement, that it is not enough. Almost never does a complete change occur immediately.

    For me who is gay, this is a good thing. Sometimes the right thing is to be happy for the small improvement.