In First, Gay Couple in Japan Wins Common Law Marriage Designation

In First, Gay Couple in Japan Wins Common Law Marriage Designation

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Same sex couple with LGBTQ flag
Picture: polkadot / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
For the first time in Japan, a local government recognized same-sex spouses on a residence certificate as acommon-law marriage. Now, it looks like other governments may follow suit in a move that could pressure Japan's central government to act.

Same-sex couples in Japan are still fighting for recognition of their rights from Japan’s national government. Against that backdrop, a local government took a historic step in May by granting a male couple’s union an official designation as a common-law marriage. Now, it seems other local governments are poised to follow suit.

Husband, unregistered

LGBTQ people holding fists in the air
Picture: polkadot / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

In Japan, every resident must register where they live with their local city office. To certify this registration, the city issues a residence certificate (住民票; juuminhyou). For multi-member residences, a single member is identified as the head of household, with other members listed according to their relationship with that person. The head of household becomes primarily financially responsible for the household’s pension and national health care system payments.

For example, in a heterosexual married couple, the husband or wife might register as the head of household, and their spouse would be listed as a household member. (Statistically, the head of household is typically the husband. However, this is mere custom and not a legal requirement.)

When a same-sex couple registers their partnership under a local partnership system, the city will typically list them, not as a married couple, but as “roommates” ( 同居人; doukyosha) or “relatives” (縁故者; enkosha).

Matsuura Keita and Fujiyama Yuuta in the city of Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture, decided to challenge that. The couple asked that the city recognize their relationship by listing one of their pair as “Husband (unregistered)” (夫(未届)) – the designation used in Japan for common-law marriages. The city made Japanese history by granting the request.

“I’m thrilled. I didn’t think they’d approve it,” Matsuura told Huffington Post Japan. “My hope is that we can gain the same rights as common law married couples now that they’ve recognized our relationship on official documentation.”

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Other cities say they’ll follow suit

Omura mayor Sonoda Hiroshi is standing behind the city’s decision. He says they’ve received 12 requests from other local governments asking for details and clarification around the decision. It’s a sign that other local governments may follow suit.

Mayor Sonoda says that 20 city residents have submitted their opinions about granting common law status to a same-sex couple. Of the 20, 14 were positive and only six were negative.

In another sign that this could start a trend, the mayor of Suginami City in Tokyo says the government there may emulate Omura’s decision. Mayor Kishimoto Satoko says that “there are various effects” involved in granting common-law status to same-sex couples but that the city seeks “to overcome these and meet same-sex couples halfway.”

Kishimoto praised Omura’s decision to recognize same-sex marriages in the absence of action by Japan’s government. The government of Kishida Fumio refuses to take action on marriage equality despite broad public support. However, she expressed hesitation over different local governments introducing “confusion” by taking different approaches to representing couples’ residency.

The metropolis of Tokyo, under Governor Koike Yuriko, passed a partnership system for same-sex couples in 2022.

Relative…or roommate?

Japanese and LGBT flag

Locally-run partnership systems in Japan – run at the city or prefectural level – cover well over 70% of the country’s population. Acting as a stopgap for the central government’s failure to move on legalizing marriage equality nationally, they provide some – but not all – of the benefits of marriage.

However, since they’re run separately by local governments, there’s no consistency in how wards, cities, or prefectures recognize such unions on residency certificates. For example, Huffington Post Japan looked at how each of the 23 cities (wards) of Tokyo represents a partnership on residence certificates. The majority use the word 同居人 (doukyojin; co-habitant). Only four – Sumida, Setagaya, Shibuya, and Suginami – use the word 縁故者 (enkosha; relative).

Source: Huffington Post Japan

Of the two terms, enkosha is the one that directly denotes a familial relationship. Doukyojin has the feeling more of “best friends” (友人; yuujin) who decide to live together.

Why doukyojin? The trend appears to date back to a 2018 comment by a minister for Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, who said, “We wouldn’t describe [same sex partners] as family, so [their relationship] is written as ‘co-habitants’.”

However, since then, more local governments have moved away from doukyojin and embraced enkosha as a stronger and more respectful description of LGBTQ relationships.

Tokyo Shimbun interviewed Furuya Mitsue, who entered into a partnership with their same-sex partner in 2015 in Tokyo’s Setagaya. At first, the city listed their relationship as doukyijin. In November 2022, the city enabled partners to change their residence relationship from doukyojin to enkosha.

“I feel like it made our bond deeper,” Furuya says, who says they’ll change to a common-law marriage designation if and when Setagaya allows it.

The fight for ultimate equality

So far, Japan’s Ministry of Justice has refused to issue an opinion on the new movement and whether they regard it as legal.

A lawyer for Marriage for All Japan says they consider the move by Omura to be legal given the group’s reading of Japan’s Residential Basic Book Act. Terahara Makiko told Huffington Post Japan she hopes that “other governments take the same positive steps [as Omura city] and adjust to the reality of same-sex couples.”

However, another lawyer, Mizutani Yoko, warned that even common-law marriage recognition isn’t enough. Mizutani oversaw a recent case in which a same-sex partner received financial benefits from a local government normally reserved for heterosexual married couples after his partner was murdered.

“Even if other governments emulate Omura, it won’t eliminate the inadequacies in the law. We need to accelerate granting same-sex couples equality of choices,” she said, emphasizing that a national marriage equality law is the only long-term solution.

Sources

東京23区で、同性カップルの事実婚表記を認めている自治体は?4区が記載する「縁故者」とは何か. Huffington Post Japan

住民票の「夫(未届)」記載、岸本聡子杉並区長が検討を表明 「当事者に寄り添いたい」. Tokyo Shimbun

同性カップルに「夫(未届)」住民票、「他の自治体も理解」大村市長. Asahi Shimbun

同性カップルの住民票に「夫(未届)」、事実婚と同様の扱いに期待集まる。総務省は「答えられる段階にない」. Huffington Post Japan

今増加している「事実婚」とは? 法律婚との違いや必要な手続きについて解説. MyNavi

「世帯主=夫」でいいの?結婚するときの【世帯主】の役割と決め方. Zexy

同性カップルの住民票「続柄」が悩ましい 同居人、縁故者に「夫(未届)」が登場 同性婚の法制化こそ悲願. Tokyo Shimbun

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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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