Ikuo Sato knows he will be in trouble if he becomes infected with COVID-19.
“I’m over 60, I’ve got diabetes, I’m HIV-positive and I’m on artificial dialysis,” says the 61-year-old, who works for a nonprofit organization that supports HIV-positive people in Japan. “I began feeling very uncomfortable when the number of cases in Tokyo started rising, but I still had to go to the office every day because I couldn’t work from home.”
Sato has another reason for wanting to avoid the virus. For the past 16 years, he has lived with his same-sex partner, Yoshi. Sato’s two younger sisters know about the relationship and are understanding, but Yoshi — who spoke on condition that his surname would not be published because he has yet to publicly come out — is estranged from his own family.
Sato knows that, were he to die from COVID-19, his sisters would support Yoshi. Were the same thing to happen to Yoshi, on the other hand, the fact that Japan does not recognize same-sex marriage means Sato probably wouldn’t even be invited to attend his funeral.
“It would be as if we had no relationship at all,” says Sato. “There are people (from his family) who know about me but we’re not in contact. If he has to go to a hospital, I know I won’t be able to see him. If he dies, we won’t be able to meet again and that would be the end. That would be awful.”
A total of 29 countries and territories around the world recognize same-sex marriage, but Japan is not one of them. In fact, Japan is the only one of the Group of Seven nations that does not offer any legal recognition to same-sex partners.
Unfortunately for couples such as Sato and Yoshi, the government shows little sign of changing that.
In June last year, opposition parties submitted a bill that proposed legalizing same-sex marriage, but the government declined to debate it. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party maintains that same-sex marriage is prohibited by Article 24 of the Constitution, which states that “marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.”
Away from the political arena, however, a shift in public opinion toward the LGBTQ community in Japan has raised hopes that change could be coming. A poll conducted by advertising giant Dentsu in October 2018 showed that 78.4 percent of people aged between 20 and 59 said they “approve” or “somewhat approve” of same-sex marriage, a figure that would once have been unthinkable.
The challenge to the government’s position is growing elsewhere, too. Sato and Yoshi were among 13 couples who filed lawsuits on Feb. 14 last year, arguing that the government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage goes against their constitutional right to equality. A growing number of local governments and businesses are also adding significant weight to the debate.
“The hope would be that the Japanese government will listen to the corporates, will listen to the municipalities, and will look around and see that they’re the only one in the G7 that doesn’t offer any rights to same-sex couples,” says Alexander Dmitrenko, co-chair of Lawyers for LGBT and Allies Network, a nongovernmental organization that promotes LGBTQ rights. “Their peers across the globe — Western democracies — all have recognition of same-sex relationships, and Japan is seen to be quite backward.”
LGBTQ awareness in Japan has historically lagged behind other developed countries, and many people still keep their sexuality a secret. The 2018 Dentsu survey revealed that 50.3 percent of people polled who identified as LGBTQ described themselves as “reticent” or “somewhat reticent” to come out to their work colleagues, while 54.5 percent of people said there were “no sexual diversity support systems in place” in their workplaces.
Lawmaker Taiga Ishikawa, 45, says he grew up keeping his sexuality to himself. At the time, Japan’s most popular dictionary defined homosexuality as “a sexual abnormality,” while a booklet published by the education ministry instructed teachers that being gay was something to be discouraged in students.
Ishikawa came out publicly in a memoir he wrote after graduating from university, and he was encouraged by the messages he received from readers who related to his situation. After setting up a nonprofit organization to support young LGBTQ people, he entered politics and was elected to a seat in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward assembly in April 2011.
In July last year, Ishikawa became Japan’s first openly gay male Diet member when he was elected to the Upper House. He followed in the footsteps of Kanako Otsuji, who had become Japan’s first openly gay female Diet member six years previously.
“I think things have changed a lot in the past 20 years,” Ishikawa says. “People have finally realized that it’s a matter of human rights. Twenty years ago, when I started giving public talks, people would ask me if I had a bad relationship with my parents, or if gay people were just unhappy.
“During my election campaign last year, I gave out leaflets with rainbow flags on them and campaigned on a platform of making same-sex marriage legal,” he says. “People seemed to respond positively to the rainbow flag and they wished me well. The votes I got were very evenly spread around the country. That’s proof that people all over Japan support gay rights.”
Further evidence of Japan’s shifting stance on LGBTQ issues can be seen in the attitudes of local governments around the country.
On April 1, 2015, Shibuya Ward in Tokyo announced that it would offer “partnership certificates” to same-sex couples, a first for any municipality in Japan. Although not legally binding, the certificates were intended to be used as de facto marriage certificates to help same-sex couples with matters such as hospital visits and renting apartments. Businesses and hospitals were asked to comply with the ordinance, and those who didn’t could be publicly named.
Shibuya was quickly joined by Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, before Sapporo became the first city in Japan to officially recognize same-sex partnerships in June 2017. Ibaraki Prefecture then took it to a prefectural level in July 2019, followed by Osaka Prefecture in January this year. Now, around 50 local governments around Japan recognize same-sex partnerships.
Campaigners say same-sex partnerships have helped lay the groundwork for marriage recognition by getting the Japanese public used to the idea, while also putting pressure on the government to follow suit. For the couples themselves, the partnership certificates have a deep emotional significance.
“It was like a statement to other people that we were together as a couple,” says Koyuki Higashi, who, along with her former partner, Hiroko Masuhara, became the first couple in Japan to have their same-sex partnership officially recognized in Shibuya on Nov. 5, 2015. “More and more people began to recognize us as a couple, and that was a big change.”
Higashi and Masuhara had also made headlines a few years earlier, when they took advantage of a new service offering couples the chance to hold a “wedding” ceremony at Tokyo Disney Resort in March 2012.
Initially, the couple were told that they could only take part in the ceremony — which was purely symbolic — if one of them wore a dress and the other wore a tuxedo. After further consultation, they were given the green light to wear whatever they liked. Pictures of them both wearing dresses and pledging their commitment to each other were broadcast extensively in the media, and Higashi was overwhelmed by the response.
“Some people were saying we shouldn’t be having a same-sex wedding ceremony in a place where there were lots of kids,” Higashi says. “But there were far more people saying it was something good, and that it was strange how we could have a ceremony but we weren’t allowed to be legally married in Japan.”
For all the symbolic value of public ceremonies and same-sex partnerships, however, only marriage can grant the legal rights needed to deal with tax, inheritance, immigration status, social insurance, custody and a whole host of other matters that affect couples’ everyday lives.
Recent legal developments have hinted at a turning of the tide, but there have been setbacks as well as successes. In March, in the first high court ruling of its kind, the Tokyo High Court ruled in favor of a woman who sued her former same-sex partner for damages over infidelity at an appeal decision. The judge noted that “it was a relationship equivalent to that in which a man and a woman come together to lead their lives together in cooperation as a married couple.”
Earlier this month, on the other hand, Nagoya District Court rejected a request to overturn a prefectural commission’s decision that a man whose same-sex partner of around 20 years had been murdered was not eligible for victims’ compensation. “I cannot recognize same-sex relationships as de facto marriages,” the judge said.
While Abe’s government may argue that same-sex marriage goes against Article 24 of the Constitution, marriage equality campaigners believe that denying it infringes Article 14, which says “all of the people are equal under the law.” After spending four years looking into petitions, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations agreed, issuing a statement last July calling on the government to legalize same-sex marriage.
Lawyers representing Sato and all the others who filed their cases on Valentine’s Day last year do not expect the courts to issue a judgment for some time, and the plaintiffs have also been frustrated that the COVID-19 outbreak has interrupted proceedings. For those involved, however, the pandemic has only reaffirmed their conviction that same-sex marriage is an essential human right.
“In times of emergency, things such as LGBTQ issues get pushed back because something like the coronavirus takes priority,” says Haru Ono, who, along with her partner, Asami Nishikawa, is one of the plaintiffs. “But it’s precisely when there is an emergency that we’re in trouble.
“Usually, we can make things work through our own efforts,” Ono says. “But when there’s no legal guarantee, there’s no safety net. A marriage system is necessary at times like this. I can understand to some degree when they say ‘we’re in an emergency now so there’s no time to talk about it,’ but really, that’s why they should have created a system in the first place.”
If the government remains unmoved by personal situations like Ono’s, campaigners are hoping it will listen more carefully to the corporate case for same-sex marriage.
In September 2018, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan issued a statement called the Viewpoint on Marriage Equality, which recommended that the government recognize same-sex marriage. The statement argues that recognition would help Japan attract more talent from overseas and retain domestic LGBTQ workers who might be tempted to go abroad. It has now been signed by 87 multinational companies operating in Japan, including domestic firms such as Panasonic, Lixil and SoftBank.
“If you don’t have that clear path for your relationship to be recognized, people who can leave do leave,” says Dmitrenko, who worked on Canada’s same-sex marriage laws. “You see quite an important exodus. You also see people who don’t want to come back. There’s a big bank in Japan that had this issue where a senior executive refused to come back to Japan because she married someone in a country where she could. She said ‘Well, why would I want to go back when my wife can’t?’
“That’s what the government of Japan will listen to — the major drivers of the economy who say this is important for us and for our employees and for Japan.”
Several major companies in Japan have begun offering equal benefits to employees’ same-sex partners, but many workplaces still do not share such a progressive approach. Sato’s partner, Yoshi, is only now gradually beginning to come out at the age of 53, and he is sure his work colleagues would be hostile were he to tell them his true sexuality. He still hears derogatory words for LGBTQ people being bandied around his male-dominated office.
Others are fortunate to work in a more welcoming environment, and there is cautious optimism that attitudes in Japan can continue to evolve.
Lawmaker Ishikawa believes Japan’s younger generation will be more inclined to embrace change than those currently in power, and he takes inspiration from Japan’s near-neighbor Taiwan, which became the first place in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage in May last year.
“I think things could change if there were more younger Diet members and a younger voting public,” Ishikawa says. “In Taiwan, there are a lot of young people who take part in LGBTQ parades, and they were involved in trying to change society. If you involve young people, you can change society.
“A lot of people who oppose same-sex marriage in Japan think of it as something that only happens in Europe, but Taiwan’s case proves it’s needed here too,” he says. “I wanted Japan to be first, but Taiwan got there before us. I hope Japan can follow in its footsteps as soon as possible and adopt a system that will make everyone happy. That day can’t come soon enough.”
When that day will actually come remains to be seen, but the consensus among same-sex marriage campaigners seems to be that it is a question of when, rather than if. For those who grew up in a Japan where attitudes toward LGBTQ issues were almost unrecognizable from what they are today, that in itself is a victory.
“I would have thought it was impossible,” Sato says. “All I knew at the time was people making fun of being gay. I could only think about hiding my own sexuality, and that if someone found me out, I would be in big trouble. Same-sex marriage just wasn’t a notion that even entered my head.”