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Battle for same-sex marriage in Japan: Will court challenges bring change?

Battle for same-sex marriage in Japan: Will court challenges bring change?

One of the couples suing Japan's government (Photo: Twitter)

Same-sex couples in Japan are launching the country’s greatest ever bid for marriage equality.

Thirteen couples and their lawyers will file lawsuits in four different cities against the government on 14 February.

They are seeking compensation from the government after it rejected their marriage application. The couples will argue the government’s position on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Japan’s largely conservative society does not allow same-sex marriage.

What’s more, there is no nationwide legislation to protect LGBTI people from discrimination based on their sexuality or gender identity.

‘Marriage is a fundamental right under the constitution, and this should be applied to same-sex couples’ lawyer for the Marriage For All Japan group, Takeharu Kato, said.

‘It’s unfair that same-sex couples are not able to enjoy the rights given to heterosexual couples,’ he said.

Couples suing Japan's government give a press conference in January (Photo: Twitter)
Couples suing Japan’s government at a public event in January. (Photo: Twitter)

Why now?

A growing number of Japan’s municipalities recognize LGBTI couples with partnership certificates.

It gives them limited recognition in government hospitals and housing. Some large companies recognize the certificates to offer the same spousal discounts given to straight couples.

Last week, Chiba became the latest city to offer certificates. Tokyo’s Shibuya and Setagaya wards were the first local governments to issue the certificates in 2015.

But, Kato pointed out, Japan is the only country in the G7 not to recognize same-sex unions.

’This violation of the human right of freedom to marry has continued for a long time’ he told Gay Star News. ‘Its time that the rights of LGBTI people are recognized’.

Next year, Tokyo will also host the Olympic Games. Kato hopes the international scrutiny will help their case.

Kato said moves by Taiwan and Thailand to legalize same-sex unions also spurred activists.

Japan's legal network for LGBT rights (Photo: Twitter)
Japan’s legal network for LGBT rights. (Photo: Twitter)

What’s the plan?

Article 24 of Japan’s constitution says ‘marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.’ It was introduced in 1947 to promote equality between couples.

But, Kato and the other lawyers will argue, this should not prohibit same-sex marriages. He also said courts should take the historical context into account. In 1947, no countries allowed same-sex marriage.

The couples will first lodge cases with district courts, Kato said. If successful, the government will likely appeal to the high, and then the supreme, court. The whole process could take at least five years.

‘Filing the cases is just the beginning’ he said. Marriage For All Japan will also begin crowdfunding and launch a public awareness campaign.

They are targeting politicians and business leaders to promote the cause. There is also a change.org petition.

Ai Nakajima and Kristina Baumann on their wedding day.
Ai Nakajima and Kristina Baumann. | Photo: Facebook

Will it be successful?

Kato admitted that Japanese courts are reluctant to make a ruling that would change society. ’They tend to obey public opinion’ he said.

That’s why, according to Kato, it is so important to change the views of society and the parliament.

What’s more, unfortunately, Japan’s ruling party is notorious for its anti-LGBTI comments.

But, one of the opposition parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, is planning to introduce a same-sex marriage bill.

Opposition parties have already introduced an anti-discrimination bill.

Discussion of same-sex marriage in society, Kato said, is not active. Even many LGBTI Japanese do not push for same-sex marriage as coming out seems like a distant dream.

A recent survey suggested the majority of Japanese support same-sex marriage. But, Kato pointed out, this did not include Japan’s large older, conservative population.

So far, Japan has not seen strong, vocal opposition to LGBTI rights.

But, Kato warned, this could change once their campaign gains visibility. ‘We are afraid’, he said.

He referenced Taiwan, where success in the courts was followed by voters rejecting true marriage equality in a referendum.