A Japanese court says denying same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and calls for urgent change

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A supporter for the LGBTQ+ community holds up a poster as plaintiffs speak in front of media members by the main entrance of the Tokyo district court after hearing the ruling regarding LGBTQ+ marriage rights, in Tokyo, Thursday, March 14, 2024. The poster reads, "Legalize the same-sex marriage." The Japanese court on Thursday ruled that not allowing same-sex couples the same marital benefits as heterosexuals violates their fundamental right to have a family, but the current civil law did not take into consideration sexual diversity and is not clearly unconstitutional, a partial victory for Japan's LGBTQ+ community calling for equal marriage rights. (AP Photo/Hiro Komae)

TOKYO – A Japanese high court ruled Thursday that denying same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and called for urgent government action to address the lack of any law allowing for such unions. Plaintiffs and the LGBTQ+ community in Japan cheered it as giving them hope for change toward equality.

The court does not have the power to overturn the current marriage law, which has been interpreted to restrict marriage as between a man and a woman. Government offices may continue to deny marriage status to same-sex couples unless the existing law is revised to include LGBTQ+ couples or a new law is enacted that allows for other types of unions.

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The Sapporo High Court ruling said not allowing same-sex couples to marry and enjoy the same benefits as straight couples violates their fundamental right to equality and freedom of marriage. The case was brought by three same-sex couples who appealed three years ago after a lower court recognized the unconstitutionality of excluding same-sex couples from marriage equality but dismissed compensation claims for their suffering.

A lower court issued a similar ruling earlier Thursday, becoming the sixth district court to do so. But the Tokyo District Court ruling was only a partial victory for Japan’s LGBTQ+ community calling for equal marriage rights, as it doesn’t change or overturn the current civil union law that the government says defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Five previous court decisions in various cities said Japan’s policy of denying same-sex marriage is either unconstitutional or nearly so. However, unlike the Sapporo ruling Friday, none of the district-level courts clearly deemed the Japanese government's existing policy to reject same-sex couples unconstitutional.

Sapporo High Court Judge Kiyofumi Saito said the constitutional freedom of marriage is about partnership between two human beings, and the right to marry should equally protect couples of different and same sexes. With their exclusion, same-sex couples have experienced significant disadvantages, suffering or loss of identity, the judge said.

“Disallowing marriage to same-sex couples is a discrimination that lacks rationality," the ruling said. But allowing same-sex marriage creates no disadvantage or harm to anyone, it said.

A plaintiff, Eri Nakaya, said the traditional definition of marriage repeatedly made her feel that same-sex couples are treated as if they do not exist.

"The ruling clearly stated that same-sex couples have the same right as others and deserve to live in this country, and reminded me it's okay just to be me,” she said.

Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven nations that still excludes same-sex couples from the right to legally marry and receive spousal benefits.

Support for marriage equality has grown among the Japanese public in recent years, but the governing Liberal Democratic Party, known for its conservative family values and reluctance to promote gender equality and sexual diversity, remains opposed to the campaign.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters that the government planned to closely watch the public opinion and parliamentary debate, as well as pending court cases because “an introduction of same-sex marriage closely affects family values of the people."

In the Tokyo ruling, the court said that the right to marry, have a family and enjoy advantages marriage brings — such as tax deductions and social security benefits — are guaranteed for everyone, and that lack of the legal right to same-sex couples deprives them of their basic right.

The Tokyo ruling also acknowledged the right for anyone to live based on their sexuality and sexual identity, and that traditional family values and marriage are changing, and equality of same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted in international and corporate communities. The court said the government’s lack of effort to implement legal marriage equality is not unconstitutional, but expressed hope for the parliament to enact a law for same-sex marriage.

Marriage equality is now recognized in dozens of countries, not only in Western countries like Greece and the United States but also in Asia, with Nepal allowing same-sex marriage registration starting in 2023.

The eight Tokyo plaintiffs said they are frustrated by Japan's slow change. A lawyer, Makiko Terahara, said they planned to appeal Thursday's decision to a high court.

While Japan’s conservative government has been criticized as stonewalling diversity, recent surveys show a majority of Japanese back legalizing same-sex marriage. Support among the business community has rapidly increased.

Tokyo enacted an LGBTQ+ awareness promotion law in June that critics said was watered down. The Supreme Court separately ruled that Japan’s law requiring compulsory sterilization surgery for transgender people to officially change their gender is unconstitutional.


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