• Reuters, Kyodo

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A Sapporo court ruled Wednesday that the government's failure to recognize same-sex marriage is unconstitutional in the country's first judicial ruling on marriage equality.

The ruling set a new precedent in the only Group of Seven nation not to fully recognize same-sex partnerships, though it rejected demands for damages to be paid. Still, it is a major symbolic victory for the LGBTQ community and activists in a country whose Constitution defines marriage as being based on "the mutual consent of both sexes."

The Sapporo District Court threw out the demand for damages by the six plaintiffs — two male couples and one female couple — who had asked that the government pay ¥1 million each due to the pain they suffered for not being able to legally marry.

In the landmark ruling, presiding Judge Tomoko Takebe sided with the couples who claimed the government was violating Article 14 of the Constitution that ensures the right to equality, describing as "discriminatory" the government's failure to implement legal measures to offer "even a degree" of marital benefits to same-sex couples.

However, she rejected the plaintiffs' demand for compensation, saying that the state reparations law was not violated, noting the difficulty for the Diet to quickly recognize the problem.

The lawsuit also revolved around the interpretation of marriage in Article 24 of the Constitution that stipulates, "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."

Takebe agreed with the government that there was no violation of Article 24 of the Constitution, saying it related to heterosexual marriage and did not mention same-sex marriage.

But the recognition that not allowing them to marry was unconstitutional was the victory the plaintiffs, their lawyers and activists had been hoping for.

"My tears didn't stop flowing. The court took us seriously," said a plaintiff in his 40's, who uses Ryosuke Kunimi as his pseudonym, following the landmark verdict.

"It's like a dream. Now the government only needs to act," said another plaintiff.

"I'm really happy. Until the ruling was announced, we didn't know this was what we'd get and I'm just overjoyed," said 44-year-old Gon Matsunaka, director of activist group Marriage for All Japan and representative at Pride House Tokyo.

"Its value is absolutely measureless."

The plaintiffs were among 13 couples who filed similar lawsuits on Valentine's Day in 2019 in Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Another three same-sex couples filed a suit in Fukuoka in September that year, and the latest ruling may influence the outcomes there as well.

Compared to much of Asia, Japanese laws are relatively liberal. Homosexual sex has been legal since 1880, but social attitudes keep the LGBTQ community largely invisible and many find it hard to come out even to their families.

Without a will, same-sex couples can't inherit their partner's assets — such as the house they may have shared — and also have no parental rights to any children their partners may have.

Though partnership certificates issued by some individual municipalities help with renting places to live and hospital visitation rights, they still don't allow for the same full legal rights given to heterosexual couples.

Some in the business world say Japan's ban on same-sex marriage makes it difficult for companies, especially foreign firms, to attract and retain highly skilled workers in an increasingly international economy.

The American Chamber of Commerce last year issued a statement saying that Japan's stance makes it less competitive internationally as a result.

A number of companies have taken their own steps to work around the situation, including both international companies and Osaka-based Panasonic. But there are limits.

"For things that are part of the national system, such as pensions, there's nothing they can do," said Masa Yanagisawa, head of Prime Services at Goldman Sachs Japan and a board member of the Marriage for All Japan nongovernmental organization.

"All the other advanced countries have this, so Japan will lose out competitively. Then there's the fact that people can't be who they are. It becomes quite business critical."

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