Japan court upholds ban on same-sex marriage

A court in Osaka has dismissed a lawsuit that argued Japan’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

The ruling on Monday dealt a setback to LGBTQ rights activists in the only Group of Seven nation that does not allow people of the same gender to marry.

Three same-sex couples – two male and one female – had filed the case in the Osaka district court, only the second to be heard on the issue in Japan.

In addition to rejecting their claim that being unable to marry was unconstitutional, the court also threw out their demands for 1 million yen ($7,414) in damages for each couple.

“I actually wonder if the legal system in this country is really working,” said plaintiff Machi Sakata, who married her US-citizen partner in the United States. The two are expecting a baby in August.

“I think there’s the possibility this ruling may really corner us,” Sakata said.

The plaintiffs have pledged to lodge an appeal.

“I felt there is a long way ahead [in our fight]” another of the plaintiffs, Akiyoshi Tanaka, 44, was quoted as saying by the Kyodo news agency.

His partner, Yuki Kawata, 37, described the court as being “weak-kneed”.

The Osaka court ruling conflicts with a decision from a court in Sapporo in March 2021 that ruled that the same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. The ruling did, however, recognise that the ban infringed on individual dignity and said that “there have not been enough discussions among people in Japan” on the appropriate system to realise benefits for same-sex couples, according to Kyodo.

The court in Osaka has “essentially punted and threw the issue to the Diet for legislative action,” said Jeff Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at the Temple University of Japan, referring to the Japanese parliament.

Japan’s constitution defines marriage as being based on “the mutual consent of both sexes”. Under the current rules in Japan, same-sex couples are not allowed to legally marry, they cannot inherit their partner’s assets – such as the house they may have shared – and also have no parental rights over their partner’s children.

Though partnership certificates issued by some individual municipalities help same-sex couples to rent a place together and have hospital visitation rights, they do not give them the full legal rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

Last week, the Tokyo prefectural government passed a bill to recognise same-sex partnership agreements – meaning more than half of Japan’s population is now covered by such agreements.

While Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said the issue needs to be “carefully considered”, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has not disclosed any plans to review the matter or propose legislation.

A case similar to the one in Sapporo and Osaka is being heard in Tokyo, and is expected to keep alive public debate on the issue, particularly in the capital, where an opinion poll by the local government late last year found some 70 percent of people were in favour of same-sex marriage.

Kingston told Al Jazeera that the recognition of same-sex marriage by Japanese municipalities has raised the pressure on LDP to address the issue.

But the “LDP has demonstrated it is antediluvian on various social issues and out of touch with the Japanese people and other G7 members on gay marriage,” he said.

“It is stunning to see how isolated the LDP dinosaurs are on gay marriage at home and among peer countries, but then, this is a party that rails against women retaining their maiden name,” he said.

Legalising same-sex marriage would have far-reaching implications both socially and economically, activists say, by making it easier for companies to attract and retain talented workers, and even help lure foreign firms to the world’s third-biggest economy.

“If Japan wants to once again take a leading position in Asia, it has a really good opportunity right now,” said Masa Yanagisawa, head of Prime Services at Goldman Sachs and board member of activist group Marriage for all Japan, speaking prior to the Osaka verdict.

“International firms are reviewing their Asian strategy and LGBTQ inclusivity is becoming a topic … International businesses don’t want to invest in a location that isn’t LGBTQ-friendly.”

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