Japan Court Backs Same-Sex Marriage. Laws Still Block It.

Japan Court Backs Same-Sex Marriage. Laws Still Block It.

Japan Court Backs Same-Sex Marriage. Laws Still Block It.

Japan Court Backs Same-Sex Marriage. Laws Still Block It.

TOKYO — A Japanese court on Wednesday ruled that the country’s failure to recognize same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, a landmark decision that could be an important step toward legalizing the unions across the nation.

The ruling, handed down by a district court in the northern city of Sapporo, came in a civil suit against the Japanese government by three same-sex couples. The lack of recognition of their unions, they said, had unfairly cut them off from services and benefits accorded to married couples, and they sought damages of around $9,000 per person.

The couples argued that the government’s failure to recognize same-sex unions violated the constitutional guarantee of equality under the law and the prohibition against discrimination regardless of sex.

The court agreed, writing in its decision that laws or regulations that deprived gay couples of the legal benefits of marriage constituted “discriminatory treatment without a rational basis.”

But the court declined to award the couples damages, making a somewhat convoluted argument that the government could not be held liable because the issue of same-sex marriage had only recently entered Japan’s public discourse.

Alexander Dmitrenko, a Canadian lawyer and resident of Tokyo who leads a nonprofit group advocating marriage equality, called the declaration of unconstitutionality “a remarkable and unique achievement,” saying that Japan’s courts are typically deferential to lawmakers.

“In the eyes of the Japanese public, this decision should underscore that gay and lesbian couples are not treated equally in Japan,” he said.

The ruling will not, however, change the law. Same-sex marriages will be recognized in Japan only if Parliament enacts legislation, Mr. Dmitrenko said. Lawmakers have repeatedly declined to take up such a bill.

Still, activists saw the court’s decision as an important step in tearing down barriers to normalizing gay marriage in Japan, the only country in the Group of 7 nations that has not legalized same-sex unions.

The unions are not explicitly banned in Japan, but they are not recognized by the national government or most localities. In recent years, some local governments have moved to provide gay couples with certificates acknowledging their marriage, but the documents have little legal or practical value.

National authorities have long argued that their position is supported by a provision in the country’s constitution that stipulates marriage can occur only with the consent of both sexes, a provision that was intended to stop Japan’s once common practice of arranged marriages.

The Japanese public remains divided in its attitudes on the subject. On one hand, the idea of same-sex marriage enjoys broad popular support. In a 2019 poll by the advertising giant Dentsu, almost 80 percent of respondents 60 and under said they supported the unions.

Even the country’s notoriously rigid business community has begun to embrace the notion of marriage equality, marketing products to gay couples and improving protections for employees.

On the individual level, however, many gay people are still hesitant to come out because of fears of discrimination from a society that is infamous for its often intense pressure to conform.

For the plaintiffs, Wednesday morning was an emotional roller coaster. The first headlines about the decision highlighted the court’s rejection of the compensation claims, provoking a moment of deep anxiety, one of the plaintiffs, Ryosuke Kunimi, told a news conference later in the day.

But when he saw the rest of the decision, he said, “I couldn’t stop my tears.”

Same-sex couples have long felt that “discrimination was natural, that there was nothing we could do about it,” he said, adding that the court decision clearly showed “that’s not true.”

The couples filed their suit in February 2019 as part of a broader national campaign to pressure the Japanese government into recognizing same-sex marriage. An additional 10 couples filed similar suits on the same day in three other courts across the country, and another couple later filed a similar suit in the city of Fukuoka. Rulings in those cases are expected later this year.

Wednesday’s ruling is likely to have a positive impact on the outcomes of those cases, Takeharu Kato, one of the lawyers representing the couples, told reporters.

The other suits were argued using nearly identical language to the one heard in Sapporo, he said, adding that “naturally, we will submit the ruling to other courts as evidence.”

In the meantime, the plaintiffs’ legal team plans to appeal the court’s decision to deny compensation, Mr. Kato said, adding that “we want to keep up pressure on the government.”

While the couples said they were pleased by Wednesday’s decision, they voiced caution about the road ahead. The ruling may face legal challenges. Ultimately, they will need Parliament to drop its longstanding opposition.

Campaigners will continue pursuing the case “until the Supreme Court,” said Makiko Terahara, a director of Marriage for All Japan, a nonprofit organization that has taken the lead on the marriage equality cases.

At the same time, she said, the campaign will step up pressure on Parliament “to amend the law to allow same-sex marriage as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers “are obligated to respect the Constitution,” Ms. Terahara added. They “cannot allow the current situation, which is clearly in violation of the Constitution, to continue.”

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