Thirty-three-year-old Satoko Nagamura has long wanted to have a child with her same-sex partner. However, it’s extremely rare for same-sex couples to raise children in Japan, and for a long time Nagamura believed that it was basically impossible.
Nagamura’s views shifted after she stumbled across a blog by a domestic gay writer in the mid-2000s that recounted the steps she went through to give birth after importing sperm from the United States. The blogger’s story gave Nagamura a glimmer of hope.
In 2014, Nagamura started a relationship with a woman called Mamiko Moda. Moda was willing to support Nagamura’s dream, and together they began searching for a sperm donor in Japan. It’s no longer possible to import sperm from overseas, Nagamura explains, adding that no domestic medical institutions accept it.
The couple found a donor they trusted last year and have taken their first steps toward conceiving a child. Their first attempt ended in failure in August.
A woman’s ability to conceive is believed to lessen after the age of 35, so Nagamura and her partner plan to try for another two years before giving up.
“I’ve really wanted to have a child since I was 20 years old,” says Nagamura, who runs an eatery called Dorobune in Tokyo’s gay district of Shinjuku Ni-chome.
“I’ve always had this strong desire to have my own family with the person I love,” she says. “It’s a natural feeling and it has nothing to do with being gay or straight.”
Japan has made some progress in addressing issues related to sexual minorities over the past year or so. Until recently, the media has by and large ignored issues relating to sexual orientation. However, journalists nationwide have given their struggles a bigger platform since Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward decided to issue certificates recognizing same-sex partnerships in March 2015.
More than 18 months later, members of the public are more likely to be aware of what LGBT stands for, while an increasing number of companies are trying to create lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-friendly environments. However, the shifting landscape does little to reassure Nagamura about her desire to conceive.
“Having a child with a same-sex partner does make me feel slightly uneasy and that’s something I can’t do anything about,” she says. “However, I suppose many heterosexual couples also have similar concerns. I’ve thought about this issue so much and even questioned whether I was actually being selfish in wanting a child. But I finally decided to challenge myself.
“Deep down, I believe I’m not wrong in wanting to have a child. I’m free to have such feelings and nobody can take that away from me.”
Nagamura is among a growing number of lesbians in Japan who are trying to have children.
“It’s generally not known, but children are currently a hot topic within the lesbian community,” says Hiroko Masuhara, 38, who, together with her partner, Koyuki Higashi, became the first couple to receive certificates recognizing their relationship from Shibuya Ward in November 2015. “It’s finally becoming a realistic option for us. Many are trying to get pregnant these days, using donated sperm from their friends or relatives.”
Mayu Aoyama, a 44-year-old woman who is raising a 5-year-old boy with her female partner, says she personally knows more than 20 lesbian couples raising children who all are under the age of 5.
Aoyama, deputy president of Rainbow Family, a group of LGBT people raising children, says many gay women are trying to conceive — or are carrying — their second or third child.
Although the government compiles no official data on the issue, a recent survey by NHK suggests that a number of LGBT people in Japan are raising children.
Conducted in October last year, the survey polled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people nationwide. Of the 1,711 respondents, 96 people — or 5.6 percent — said they were raising children.
Some children were from previous heterosexual marriages, while other parents had had children through assisted reproductive technologies, the survey said.
Japan currently has no law regulating the use of assisted reproductive technology. As a result, medical institutions have been performing the treatment under guidelines issued by the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Under the guidelines, only legally married couples can attempt to conceive through artificial insemination with semen provided by donors — colloquially called AID.
Applying the same principle, the Civil Code states that “special adoption” (where a child’s legal relationship with its biological parents is erased and the status is transferred to the foster parents) is only available to legally married couples. (Japan also recognizes “regular adoption,” under which a person’s name is transferred to another family’s registry for legal purposes such as inheritance. Under this system, that person retains their legal ties to their biological parents.)
As Japan has not legalized same-sex marriage, lesbian couples who wish to have children, therefore, have no other choice than to find a donor and try to conceive via a do-it-yourself method, in which a woman deposits donated semen with a cylinder-shaped medical device that can be purchased online.
Masuhara has attempted the DIY fertilization method herself several times in recent months. She says her sperm donor conducts blood tests every few months to make sure he isn’t carrying any viruses and, when she is ovulating, hands over his sperm in a sterilized bin.
“It’s the only method that doesn’t violate any regulations,” Masuhara says.
Yasunori Yoshimura, a professor emeritus in the Keio University Hospital’s artificial insemination program, says that a young woman without any fertilization problems might conceive via this method after a few attempts.
However, he warns that the method could cause serious infections such as endometritis, pelvic peritonitis and, in the worst-case scenario, a potentially fatal peritonitis. “It’s very dangerous from a sanitation perspective,” Yoshimura says. “These infections could also ultimately lead to infertility.”
Modern procedures typically require sperm to be washed before being inseminated in part to eliminate foreign elements such as germs and white blood cells that often get into sperm when it is being extracted.
Doctors typically prescribe patients two days of antibiotics before an insemination procedure to prevent infection, Yoshimura says, but even with medication, it’s impossible to completely rule out peritonitis.
“I believe we need to discuss and decide on things such as legalizing same-sex marriages and then approving the use of AID,” Yoshimura says. “We need to think of ways to create a society that allows more diversity in terms of family composition.”
The rights and obligations of same-sex parents are also a gray zone in Japan, with the 1898 Civil Code providing guidance based solely on heterosexual relationships that are able to produce offspring naturally, experts say.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party drafted a bill last year stipulating that any child born via a donated egg is to be considered to be the offspring of the woman who delivered them. If a woman conceives a child using donated sperm with the agreement of her husband, the child would be considered to be the offspring of the husband.
However, the LDP’s bill does not cover situations in which a same-sex couple has children via donated sperm or eggs.
“There is no law that covers the relationship between parents and children born through reproductive technology,” says Masayuki Tanamura, a professor of family law at Waseda University.
Under the Civil Code, Tanamura says, a woman who gives birth to a child is considered to be the mother, but her same-sex partner has no legal right over the offspring. What’s more, a child is within his or her right to demand that their biological father pay child support or legally recognize the child as his offspring, he says, and can also claim inheritance rights.
“The Civil Code is based on the assumption that every child is born through natural reproductive methods,” he says. “There is a massive gulf with the reality of today.”
Tanamura says many same-sex couples and donors enter contracts before a child is born in an attempt to define the obligations of both parties, but such written agreements are not legally binding.
Outside of Japan, more than 20 countries currently recognize same-sex marriages, according to Tanamura. Of those 20-plus countries, he says, the United States and United Kingdom, among others, allow same-sex couples to adopt children or conceive through donated sperm and other reproductive technologies.
“In Japan, we have just started to see the recognition of LGBT people with such measures as the issuance of same-sex partnership certificates by some municipalities,” Tanamura says. “I believe it will take more time to match the recognition granted to same-sex couples and children (than in places such as the United States).”
Gay women who are trying to conceive often look for gay men to act as sperm donors. For gay men, it is also effectively the only viable way for them to produce offspring in Japan. Surrogacy is currently banned under a Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology guideline.
Takashi Hara, a 28-year-old gay man who has donated his sperm to lesbian couples four times this year, says he is excited about the possibility of having his own child.
“As a gay man, I gave up on having a child some time ago,” says Hara, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as he has been visiting a fertility clinic with one of the partners involved in a lesbian relationship and posing as an unregistered common-law couple. “However, it now might be possible for me to help produce a child. I’m grateful for that.”
Hara met the couple in May at a gathering in Tokyo of LGBT people who wanted to have children. They exchanged contact numbers and a short time later he received a message from them asking if he wanted to donate his sperm.
Since then, Hara has been leaving his office in Tokyo to donate his sperm whenever he gets a message from the couple via the Line messaging app saying that the woman is ovulating. Every attempt so far has ended in failure, but they plan to try a few more times before giving up, he says.
Under an agreement in writing, the lesbian couple will have sole custody of the child in the event of a successful pregnancy. Hara will be given visitation rights and will be able to see the child up to three times a month. Hara has pledged that he will not legally acknowledge the child but will pay child support.
“Even if I could see the child twice a month, I’d feel blessed,” he said. “I believe it’s one of the ways to happiness — to have someone to care for and to love.”
However, some sperm donors struggle to handle the emotional aspect of producing a child. Aoyama’s sperm donor, for example, suddenly got cold feet after she told him about her pregnancy.
“He became scared the more he thought about it,” Aoyama recalls. “He believed that having a gay father would effectively put a curse on the child.”
The donor was concerned because he hadn’t told his family about his sexual orientation, Aoyama says. His gay friends also criticized him for donating sperm to help the couple produce a child.
He told Aoyama he would only see his offspring if the child expressed a wish to meet him after first learning what it really meant to be LGBT.
“When I gave birth to my son, the donor visited us and, holding him, told the baby that it would be the last time his child would ever see him,” Aoyama recalls. “I promised that we would raise him to become a boy who would laugh at such a thing and visit him in person one day.”
On a recent afternoon in Tokyo, Aoyama and her partner, 53-year-old Hiromi Otsuki, and their 5-year-old son were walking through their neighborhood and discussing what they would have for dinner. The child looked overjoyed to see both of his parents a little earlier in the day than usual, jumping excitedly around them.
“We often walk around the neighborhood together,” Aoyama says. “The locals know our faces, but they seem to have some trouble figuring out our relationship.”
Some people in the neighborhood have asked their son where his father was, while others appeared to believe Otsuki was Aoyama’s mother-in-law.
“I guess there’s no other way for them to understand the three of us,” she says. “I think my son’s feeling a little uneasy about certain phrases people use.”
Aoyama and Otsuki started looking for a gay man who was willing to act as a sperm donor more than 10 years ago. They met with about six or seven men over three years before finally finding the guy they felt was right to be the child’s biological father.
It took another three years for Aoyama to become pregnant in 2011.
Some of Aoyama’s friends expressed opposition to her attempts to bear a child, believing the child could be bullied by their peers at school because of the sexual orientation of their parents. However, her friends became more understanding once they saw how determined Aoyama was to conceive.
“We are the same as those heterosexual couples who can’t conceive by having sex. We are infertile — just like them,” Aoyama says. “If there is a way of overcoming such infertility, then I think we should be able to use it.”
In a bid to make things a little easier for the family, Aoyama recently revealed her sexual orientation to a few mothers at her son’s nursery school. Some said they already knew, while others said they had no idea. All of them, however, were supportive and understanding.
“It’s important to change people around us little by little,” she says. “That’s the way to effect change.”
Aoyama is still concerned about what could happen to her son when he begins elementary school. Bullying often starts at this age, she says.
“My son has to find a way to survive on his own at some point in his life,” she says. “But I don’t want my son to face super-tough times because of his parents.”
However, Aoyama says things have become much easier for them to come out as a same-sex couple over the past year, and feels the public’s attitude toward the LGBT community in Japan is changing.
“Neither myself or my partner could ever have dreamed of coming out of the closet before,” she says. “I believe Japan has made the first step. The next step is to let people know that there are LGBT people with children. People may be surprised to learn this at first but I hope they will eventually understand.”
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