Japanese court rules banning same-sex marriages unconstitutional

The plaintiffs hold hands after a district court ruled on the legality of same-sex marriages at the Sapporo District Court in Sapporo, Hokkaido, northern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo March 17, 2021.

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TOKYO, June 20 (Reuters) – A Japanese court on Monday ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was not unconstitutional, in a setback for LGBTQ activists in the only Group of Seven nation that same-sex people are not allowed to marry.

The ruling dashed activists’ hopes to ramp up pressure on the central government to address the issue after a court in the city of Sapporo ruled in March 2021 in favor of a claim that banning same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

Three same-sex couples – two men, one woman – had filed the case in an Osaka District Court, only the second to be heard on the issue in Japan.

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The court not only rejected her claim that being unable to marry was unconstitutional, but also denied her request for compensation of 1 million yen (US$7,400) for each couple.

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

“I think there’s a chance that this verdict will really corner us,” Sakata said.

The Japanese Constitution defines marriage as “based on the mutual consent of both sexes”. But the introduction of civil partnership rights for same-sex couples in Tokyo last week, along with rising support in opinion polls, had raised hopes for the Osaka case from activists and lawyers.

The Osaka court said marriage was defined only as between opposite sexes and that there had not been enough debate about same-sex marriages in Japanese society.

“We emphasized in this case that we wanted same-sex couples to have access to the same things as normal couples,” said attorney Akiyoshi Miwa, adding that they would appeal.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Japanese law is considered relatively liberal in some areas by Asian standards, but across the continent only Taiwan has legalized same-sex marriage.

Under current rules in Japan, members of same-sex couples cannot legally marry, cannot inherit each other’s assets – such as a house they may have shared – nor have parental rights over each other’s children.

Although partnership certificates issued by some municipalities help same-sex couples rent property together and have the right to visit hospitals, they do not give them the full legal rights that heterosexual couples enjoy.

Last week, the Tokyo prefectural government passed legislation recognizing same-sex partnership agreements, meaning local governments covering more than half of Japan’s population are now offering this recognition.

While Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the issue needs careful consideration, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party has not announced any plans to review the matter or propose legislation, although some senior party members advocate reform.

A forthcoming case in Tokyo will keep public debate alive on the issue, particularly in the capital, where a local government opinion poll late last year found about 70% of people support same-sex marriage.

Legalizing same-sex marriage would have far-reaching social and economic implications, activists say, and would help attract foreign firms to the world’s third-biggest economy.

“International firms are reviewing their Asia strategy and LGBTQ inclusivity is becoming an issue,” said Masa Yanagisawa, head of prime services at Goldman Sachs and board member of the activist group Marriage for all Japan, before the sentencing.

“International companies don’t want to invest in a location that isn’t LGBTQ friendly.”

($1 = 134.8800 yen)

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Additional reporting by Rikako Maruyama; Edited by Kenneth Maxwell and Bradley Perrett

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