In Japan, The Surge for Marriage Equality Builds

In Japan, The Surge for Marriage Equality Builds

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Japanese and LGBT flag
An uptick in public support has LGBT couples in Japan on the offensive, as a new series of lawsuits aims to turn the legal tide for same sex marriage.

Back in July 2018, I wrote about Liberal Democratic Party politician Sugita Mio. To call Sugita “right-leaning” is like saying the Sahara is “a bit on the warm side.” Last year, Sugita decided to try and score some points with an essay in which she labeled LGBT people as “unproductive” for their inability to have children like a “normal” couple. The essay set off a chain of protests that included a gathering of 5,000 people in the seat of Japan’s government in Tokyo.

As we’ve noted before, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is reluctant to dump his allies and subordinates even when they’ve proven themselves to be total fuck-ups. Between the support of her constituency, Abe’s backing, and sheer stubbornness, Sugita has weathered the storm, and still holds a seat in Japan’s Diet.

But that doesn’t mean she’s in the clear. LGBT couples and supporters are proving they have long memories, and are dogging Sugita whenever she goes. Twitter user Milan (@writerofscratch) provided this photo of a recent rally Sugita attempted to hold in Koenji, which was met instead with a throng of critics demanding that she resign[1].

As I noted at the time, Sugita’s comments drew fire, not simply because they assailed LGBT couples, but because of the additional implication that anyone who can’t bear kids has no value to society. As Japan’s population continues its steady decline, many right-leaning politicians continue to utter rhetoric demanding that Japanese women fix the problem by getting on their backs. That rhetoric is causing a backlash among people who, for whatever reason, can’t bear biological children, giving the LGTBT community a natural community of allies to help fight their cause.

Unseen Japan ( on Twitter: “An LGBT supporter holding a sign that reads “Should disabled people who can’t bear kids not be allowed to live?” – a reference to politician Sugita Mio’s comments that LGBT people are “unproductive.” / Twitter”

An LGBT supporter holding a sign that reads “Should disabled people who can’t bear kids not be allowed to live?” – a reference to politician Sugita Mio’s comments that LGBT people are “unproductive.”

A Shift in Cultural Attitudes?

There’s additional evidence that attitudes towards marriage equality may be shifting in Japan in general. A Dentsu Communications survey from January of this year showed that a whopping 80% of Japanese citizens in the 20-59 age bracket approve of marriage equality. Unfortunately, the same survey also showed that 54.5% of survey respondents said their companies have no system for extending benefits to same sex couples, and only 5.5% of respondents thought their companies were doing enough. So while social support appears to be climbing, systemic support still lags far behind[2].

One piece of good news is that this advance in support of marriage equality has led to changes at the local level. Several local governments throughout Japan have, since 2015, elected to recognize same-sex marriages through a partnership system. The non-profit organization Nijiiro Diversity recently released a report showing that 426 couples have been recognized across 20 different jurisdictions. Almost half of those (44%) come from just two jurisdictions: Osaka (100 couples) and Setagaya in Tokyo (89 couples)[3].

While the partnership systems are a step forward, though, they’re not a panacea. Since the systems are established by local jurisdictions, they can differ dramatically in their structure and enforcement. For example, the system in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward was passed as a local regulation, and results in a legal certificate of partnership. Additionally, the names of businesses and organizations who are found to violate the legal protections of the partnership system risk having their names publicized by Shibuya Ward. By contrast, Setagaya Ward’s measure was passed as a “guideline.” The Ward merely issues a “receipt of partnership,” and doesn’t enforce violations through public shaming.


Additionally, such systems only exist in 20 jurisdictions, and so don’t protect the vast majority of Japan’ LGBT population. A national ruling or law blessing same-sex marriage remains elusive.

But now a cadre of LGBT couples are deciding to strike while the iron is hot, and are making a renewed push for legalizing same-sex marriage. On April 15th, in a coordinated effort, 13 couples filed civil lawsuits in four separate jurisdictions in Japan claiming that forbidding them from marrying their partners is a violation of their rights under Japan’s Constitution. The government opposes the lawsuits, and is asking they be dismissed.

One of the plaintiffs in the Tokyo case, Kono Haru (小野春), gave emotional testimony during the first day of court. For people who have followed the trajectory of marriage equality in the US and other countries, Kono’s story is both heartbreaking and familiar. Kono has been with her partner, Ishikawa Mami, for 14 years, and have raised three children from their previous marriages together. But when Kono was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and Ishikawa ran up against the hurdles known all too well to same-sex couples worldwide:




I’ve done everything in my power to support my family when the law wouldn’t protect us. I never expected I’d be diagnosed with cancer.

It’s scary enough to have cancer, but then I was assailed by all these worries – will Ishikawa be honored as my family? will she be able to fill out the consent for surgery or the underwriting paperwork? will she be able to see me off into the OR? – that threatened to destroy me.

When I thought how none of this would be a problem if we were a man/female couple, I couldn’t go forward without crying nonstop[4].

It’s unclear whether any of the four suits stand a chance of being affirmed. But it was a single case before the Supreme Court that turned marriage equality from a movement into a reality in the United States. Proponents in Japan seem acutely aware that all it takes is one moment to turn the tide – and they’re fighting for that moment with everything they have.


[1] WriterOfScratch on Twitter

[2] 同性婚合法化、8割が肯定的 電通調査の20~50代. Asahi Shimbun

[3] 地方自治体の同性パートナー認知件数 (2019年4月17日時点). Nijiiro Diversity (via

[4] 共に泣いて、笑って、子どもを育てて。それなのに…「同性婚訴訟」初弁論で語られたこと. Buzzfeed JP

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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