LGBTQ rights in Japan suffered a blow on June 20, when a court in the country’s third-most populous city ruled that freedom of marriage in the constitution referred only to male-female unions, and that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage was therefore constitutional.
The Osaka District Court also rejected demands for compensation for one million yen ($7,400) in damages, per couple, by three couples who said their right to free union and equality had been violated, according to the Associated Press (AP).
Activists say that although the decision is disappointing, the fight for marriage equality is far from over, and they are making progress.
“There is momentum in society for change and the LGBT community will not stop,” says Kanae Doi, the Japan director of NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). While conceding that “the judiciary is slow to change and more conservative,” Doi says “Japanese public opinion is already supportive of marriage equality” and “It can take time for the LGBT rights movement to change the existing [legislature] and the judiciary, but it is surely changing.”
LGBT rights and the Japanese legal system
The ruling was the second in response to a series of lawsuits filed by more than a dozen same-sex couples at district courts around Japan on Valentine’s Day in 2019. In the first ruling, made in March last year, the Sapporo District Court said Japan’s definition of marriage, which excludes same-sex couples, violated constitutional guarantees of equality.
According to Makiko Terahara, the executive director of the activist group Marriage For All Japan the Osaka plaintiffs have indicated their intention to appeal and the argument will now move to the city’s High Court. According to the AP, Akiyoshi Tanaka, a plaintiff, said at a news conference that he will keep fighting. “We don’t have time to feel discouraged,” he said.
“It has become increasingly important for as many people as possible to raise their voices to have these courts make the right decisions and to have the law revised in the [legislature] as soon as possible,” adds Terahara.
Same-sex unions are not recognized across most of Asia. Taiwan became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2019. Thailand took a step closer towards marriage equality last week when a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage won initial approval from lawmakers.
Japan lags far behind its rich-world peers in LGBTQ rights; it’s the only country in the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations that doesn’t fully recognize same-sex partnerships. Japanese law also requires transgender people to be surgically sterilized if they want legal recognition of their gender identity.
Monday’s ruling is not the first setback for equality in the country in recent years. Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics last summer, activists hoped to capitalize on the international attention on the country to push the government to pass a law banning discrimination against LGBTQ people. But the bill provoked a backlash from some members of the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the legislature failed to pass the measure.
Progress for Japan’s LGBT community
Still, there is some progress. Last week, the Tokyo metropolitan government adopted legislation recognizing same sex-partnerships, becoming the ninth of 47 prefectures to do so (and also the largest prefecture, with almost 14 million residents). Although that extends some additional rights to same-sex couples, it falls short of full marriage rights.
HRW says that years of campaigning has led to a surge in support for LGBTQ equality in recent years. That’s especially true of younger Japanese people. More than 92% of Japanese people aged 18 to 29 say homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center.
Even after the non-discrimination bill failed to pass ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, activists told TIME that it had raised unprecedented public discussion over LGBTQ rights in the country. More than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for the government to pass the bill and several major corporations threw their weight behind the legislation.
Terahara says that she is certain that marriage equality will be realized. She says that the number of municipalities that have adopted partnership programs has increased dramatically, the number of businesses that support same-sex marriage has also increased significantly and the number of legislators in favor of same-sex marriage is steadily increasing.
“We are moving forward,” says Terahara. “Even compared to just five years ago, the progress is remarkable.”