As in the U.S., Battle for Marriage Equality in Japan Takes Place on Many Fronts

By David Howard King

June 28, 2021

As in the U.S., Battle for Marriage Equality in Japan Takes Place on Many Fronts


By David Howard King

As the spotlight focuses on Tokyo for the Summer Olympics, Japanese LGBTQ activists are  hoping that the attention will hasten reforms and protections that will allow marriage equality.

It may be shocking to some to learn that Japan is the only member of the G7 countries not to allow civil unions or same-sex marriage.

The government’s stance is that marriage is between “a man and a woman,” and that the right to same-sex marriage is not guaranteed under the country’s constitution. Partners in same-sex couples don’t enjoy inheritance rights, can’t help a partner secure citizenship and are generally not allowed to make medical decisions for their loved one. Transgender individuals must undergo a process deemed “regressive and harmful” by Human Rights Watch just to change their sexual classification.

On March 24, the 10th anniversary of Gov. Andrew Cuomo legalizing marriage equality in New York, and in the middle of Pride Month, the New York State Bar Association hosted a panel discussion on the struggle for equality and equal rights in Japan and examining how it relates to the American struggle.

The webinar, “Breaking Down the Barriers to LGBTQ Equality: Love and Let Love,” came three months after a landmark ruling by the Sapporo District Court in Japan that found that not allowing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

The forum brought together members with expertise in a host of legal areas, including international law, marriage, and civil rights.

The social perception of marriage in Japan is shifting. Polls show a solid majority of Japanese between the ages of 20 and 60 support same-sex marriage. Corporations facing labor shortages and trying to stay competitive in the market are pushing for changes to allow them to attract LGBTQ workers.

In New York and the entire United States, the fight for marriage equality and gay rights has taken place over decades and on many fronts, including socially, legislatively and legally. Experts on the panel pointed out that Japan’s fight also requires victories on several fronts.

“The process of marriage equality happened here in multiple parts of the government–state, local, federal,” said Christopher R. Riano, chair of the NYSBA LGBTQ Section, executive director of the Center for Civic Education and lecturer at Columbia University in Constitutional Law and Government. Riano said that the ruling of the Sapporo district court is “a huge piece of the puzzle,” but noted that the courts are only one factor “in bringing marriage equality to a large population.”

Riano, who served as assistant counsel to Gov. Cuomo, noted that the effort for marriage equality in New York included a failed legislative push under Gov. David Paterson, a ruling from the courts that marriage equality was not within their purview and then a legislative victory under Gov. Cuomo.

Riano said that, as litigators, members of the bar may focus too heavily on the courts in the quest for marriage equality.

Progress over many fronts is exactly what is taking place according to Kaoru Umino, director of Lawyers for LGBT and Allies Network (LLAN) and a partner at DLA Piper. She detailed how small victories for marriage equality advocates piled up before the March 17 Sapporo ruling. Courts have begun issuing rulings creating de facto recognition of domestic partnerships and local governments have issued partnership certificates to couples that meet certain mandates to allow them access to public benefits like housing. In 2019, the Justice Ministry rescinded a deportation order for a Taiwanese man who overstayed his visa after considering his long-term relationship with a Japanese citizen.

The Sapporo victory came as part of a larger effort to challenge Japanese law on marriage in court. Six couples sued, seeking to find the law unconstitutional and asking for one million yen in damages for suffering caused by the ban. The judge rejected the latter request. But the ruling on constitutionality sets up the possibility of legislative and judicial victories.

Naosuke Fujita, co-representative director at Lawyers for LGBT & Allies Network (LLAN) and general counsel at Government Pension Investment Fund-Japan, laid out how LGBTQ activists in Japan have seized on the Sapporo ruling and the heightened attention from the Olympics to push for legislative action. There was hope that the ruling LDP party would introduce and pass a bill to “raise awareness” of sexual minorities and advocate against discrimination. However, the LDP shelved that bill last month after push-back from conservative members.

‘I think the people are lost and very disappointed about what happened. Even a road to promote understanding won’t pass?” said Fujita.

Fujita said he believes the “voice of the people” in Japan and globally will influence future legislative action. He noted that President Joe Biden’s tweet praising soccer star Kumi Yokoyama’s coming out as a trans man for inspiring children to “see themselves in a new light” has received major coverage from Japanese media.

Jennifer Pizer, law and policy director at Lambda Legal, gave an outline of laws introduced in the United States seeking equal justice for the LGBTQ community. She compared how the business community has worked to push back against anti-LGBTQ legislation at the state level in the United States over the last few years to the push from the Japanese business community to make the country more LGBTQ friendly.

“They have been key allies to reach out to legislators in these states and persuade them not to do this. To stop beating up on the LGBT community, I wouldn’t have expected that.” Pizer said she was struck by the presentations about the struggle in Japan because of “how similar the dynamics are in Japan. It’s about us telling our stories and holding others accountable,” she said.


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