National / Crime & Legal

In a first, LGBT couples sue Japan over constitutionality of not recognizing same-sex marriage

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Claiming that it is unconstitutional for Japan to not recognize same-sex marriage, 13 lesbian and gay couples on Thursday filed lawsuits against the government.

In the first legal challenge of its kind in Japan, couples of various age groups, from their 20s to 50s, simultaneously brought suits to district courts in Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo and Tokyo on Valentine’s Day.

They are each demanding ¥1 million in compensation with an additional holdback worth 5 percent of the damages sought until the payment is complete, as well as funds to cover litigation costs incurred during the process.

“We’re not demanding anything special; we just want to have a chance to stand at the same starting line in our lives,” said one of the plaintiffs, 40-year-old Kenji Aiba from Saitama Prefecture, during a news conference held Thursday in Tokyo.

“I hope this lawsuit will let us share the hardships of sexual minorities with all people in Japan and that it will help other LGBT people,” Aiba said.

The plaintiffs argue that ignoring same-sex marriages and practices where officers in charge of issuing marital licenses reject applications from same-sex couples is in violation of the Constitution. This has caused the plaintiffs emotional distress, they said in their claim.

“In our lawsuit we want to point out the status quo is in violation of Article 24 of the Constitution that guarantees the freedom to marry — it states that ‘Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes’,” said Makiko Terahara, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

Technically no laws in Japan prohibit same-sex marriage. But past governments have interpreted the Constitution to mean that same-sex marriages are illegal, leading municipalities that actually handle administrative documents to reject such applications.

Terahara stressed that the Constitution doesn’t state that marriage is a union between opposite sexes.

She also said that denial of equal marriage rights violates Article 14 of the supreme code, which states that “all of the people are equal under the law.” The practice is discriminatory in political, economic or social relations, she explained.

Haru Ono, in her 40s, said she faced problems with access to medical services when she was undergoing breast cancer treatment three years ago and her same-sex partner couldn’t sign a consent form for a surgery.

Currently, 10 municipalities in Japan issue same-sex partnership certificates.

Worldwide, 25 countries including South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, the United States, Canada and Australia recognize same-sex marriages.

Ono and her partner, Asami Nishikawa, live in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, one of Japan’s first municipalities to introduce same-sex partnership certificates to ease difficulties in areas such as hospital visitation rights or housing.

The couple, who have been together for 14 years, have a partnership certificate, but earlier this month their marriage application to the ward office was rejected.

Another plaintiff Ikuo Sato, 59, who is going through treatment for HIV, said there are cases where hospitals only allow family members to visit, meaning his same-sex partner may not be able to see him if something happens.

“When I die, I’d like to hold hands with the love of my life but now only a family member would be able to access my hospital room,” Sato said.

He added that the absence of his partner at the news conference “proves that Japan is still struggling with discrimination and prejudices.” Sato said that his partner has yet to come out to his family or colleagues knowing that his relationship may not be accepted. He refused to disclose his partner’s name to the media.

On Thursday, supporters of the initiative also launched a crowdfunding campaign in the hopes of raising ¥5 million to cover some of their legal expenses.