Japan is the only G7 nation that does not legally recognize same-sex marriage or unions in any form. But in recent months, several courts have issued different rulings on the constitutionality of the ban, raising hopes and doubts among activists and couples.
In March 2021, the Sapporo District Court became the first court in Japan to rule that not allowing same-sex marriage was a violation of the Constitution, which guarantees equality under the law. The court said that the ban “infringes on the benefit of marriage and the freedom of marriage” and “lacks rationality”.
“We are very happy that we can finally get married and have our relationship recognized by our families and society,” said Ai Nakajima, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
However, in June 2022, the Osaka District Court reached the opposite conclusion, saying that not recognizing same-sex marriage was not a violation of the Constitution. The court argued that the Civil Code and Family Registration Law define marriage as between a man and a woman, and that this does not contradict Article 14 of the Constitution.
The Tokyo District Court issued a more nuanced ruling in November 2022, saying that the absence of same-sex marriage legislation was an unconstitutional state of affairs but did not violate the Constitution. The court also said that the lack of legal protection for same-sex families infringed on their human rights.
“There were parts of this that were disappointing, but parts of it gave me hope,” said Katsu, a male plaintiff who gave only his first name.
The plaintiffs in all cases had demanded compensation for the psychological damage caused by the ban, but none of the courts granted their requests.
The rulings have no immediate legal effect, but they have added pressure on the government and lawmakers to address the issue. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has remained noncommittal about same-sex marriage, saying that discussions must proceed “carefully”. His ruling party has disclosed no plans to review the matter or propose legislation, though several senior members support same-sex marriage.
“This ruling has rescued us from the hurt of last year’s ruling that said there was nothing wrong with the ban, and the hurt of what the government keeps saying,” said Yoko Mizutani, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in Nagoya District Court case, which also ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in May 2023.
More than 300 municipalities in Japan allow same-sex couples to enter partnership agreements, but their rights are limited and do not guarantee inheritance, parental rights or hospital visits. A 2019 poll indicated that 68 percent of Japanese agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 22 percent disagreed.
Two more cases are pending at courts in central and western Japan, and activists and lawyers hope that an accumulation of judicial decisions in support of same-sex marriage will eventually lead to a change in the Japanese system.
– Japan court falls short of calling same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, The Guardian, June 8, 2023
– Is Japan going to legalize same-sex marriage?, The Japan Times, June 7, 2023
– Japan government under renewed pressure to end same-sex marriage ban, The Guardian, May 30, 2023
– In landmark ruling, Japan court says it is ‘unconstitutional’ to bar same-sex marriage, Reuters, March 17, 2021