Two Tokyo wards are considering a plan to issue same-sex “partnership certificates,” putting the spotlight on the status of same-sex marriage in Japan.
Trendy Shibuya Ward got the ball rolling in early February by announcing that it would declare same-sex unions to be the “equivalent of marriage.” Setagaya, Tokyo’s most populous ward [borough] quickly followed suit with its own groundbreaking move gay marriage look like a groundswell.
Technically, same-sex marriages are not legal in Japan, and the actions of the two wards don’t change that. Holders of these certificates will not be legally married, but Setagaya Mayor Nobuto Hosaka explained that the documents would still be useful for helping couples rent places to live or permitting hospital visitations.
The action still requires formal approval from the ward assemblies, which will probably take place in early March. Support for the Setagaya ordinance is being led by Assemblywoman Aya Kamikura, one of the few openly gay or transgender elected officials in Japan.
Shibuya’s action is seen here as a significant step toward enhancing gay and lesbian rights in Japan.
A poll by the Asahi Shimbun found 52 percent approved of Shibuya’s plan to issue certificates to gay couples and 27 percent opposed. The approval rate falls to 41 for legalizing same-sex marriages.
There seems to be very little outright opposition to the actions of the two wards, and possibly that of other wards or cities in Japan. Sexually-oriented issues do not rile politics in Japan as they do in other countries, such as the United States. Conservatives in Japan can be expected to defend traditional norms, but they have other fish to fry, such as defending Japan against the accusations by Korea and other Asian countries that it shanghaied women into prostitution during World War II.
In the wake of the ward actions, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was asked his opinion on same-sex marriage during a budget meeting of parliament, possibly the first time that any Japanese prime minister has ever been asked to state his opinion on the subject.
“The Japanese constitution does not envisage marriage between people of the same sex,” Abe replied, adding that the country “should be extremely cautious” about making any changes to the document. Some critics remarked that this caution was a little rich considering he is eager to amend the constitution in myriad other ways.
Article 24 of the Constitution states that “marriage shall be based 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.” The article is a liberal icon written by Americans in 1946 mostly to ensure equality of women in marriage, not with gay rights in mind.
Some would argue that a government that certainly stretched the meaning of the pacifist Article 9 in order to participate joint military operations with other allies, an action known as “Collective Defense,” could similarly “reinterpretation” if it wanted to.
Article 14 could easily be the basis for a reinterpretation as it reads, “all people are equal under the law and there can be no discrimination because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.” Similar language has been used to legalize same-sex unions in the US.
Coincidentally, the Supreme Court recently agreed to delve into marriage issues. Same-sex unions are not on the court’s agenda, but it has agreed to adjudicate whether the current requirement forcing married couples to choose a single surname, an issue close to the hearts of Japanese feminists, is constitutional.
So it would appear that “change is afoot,” says Mari Miura, professor of gender and politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
The social background in Japan is not necessarily hostile to same-sex marriage. Homosexuality has been legal since 1880. Since 2009 it has been legal for persons of the same sex to marry in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal and then to return to Japan.
A prominent example is the US Consul-General in Osaka, Patrick Linehan, who married his husband in Canada several years ago. Disneyland Tokyo allows people to take their vows at the Cinderella’s Castle hotel, although, of course, they are only symbolic and not legal marriages.
As a whole, Japanese culture, though conservative, and the country’s major religions are not particularly homophobic, and while there are few laws on the books to protect LGBT people from discrimination, there appears to be relatively little discrimination to begin with. Gays are even accepted into the Self-Defense Forces.
Only one political party officially endorsed same-sex marriage in its election manifesto for the 2012 general election, although the Social Democratic Party has only four seats in parliament. It fielded the first openly gay candidate for parliament. He lost. The Communists endorse civil unions, and there are believed to be quiet supporters in the larger parties.
In December Taiwan became the first country in East Asia to actually debate the question of same-sex marriage at the parliamentary level. Part of the debate included amending the Civil Code to change gender specific terms like husband and wife to the more neutral “parties” or “spouses.”
As in other countries, young people in Japan seem to be well ahead of older members. The youthful Goshi Hosono, 42 the runner-up in last month’s selection for the leadership of the main opposition Democratic party of Japan, has said he supports equal rights for sexual minorities though he stops short of endorsing marriage.
The cause has another unusual champion. The prime minister’s often outspoken wife Akie Abe took part in the 2014 Tokyo LGBT pride festival last April. Her husband spent the day visiting the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.