A Japanese court has ruled that not allowing same-s.e.x marriage is unconstitutional, a landmark decision that could herald a new era for marriage equality in the country.
It’s the first time that a court has ruled on the constitutionality of same-s.e.x marriage in Japan, the only Group of Seven (G7) country that has not recognized either same-s.e.x civil unions or same-s.e.x marriage.
The case began in 2019, when three couples in Hokkaido prefecture filed a lawsuit claiming 1 million yen (about $9,160) in damages each for the psychological harm caused by the government not allowing same-s.e.x marriage.
Japan does not recognize same-s.e.x unions nationwide, although some parts of the country issue “partnership certificates” that grant some rights benefiting heterosexual couples to same-s.e.x couples.
Sapporo District Court in Hokkaido ruled Wednesday the government’s lack of recognition for same-sex marriage was in breach of a section of the constitution that requires equal laws for everyone.
But the court dismissed the couples’ claims for damages.
The three couples were among a number across Japan that are suing the government, arguing that the current law on same-s.e.x marriage was in breach of their constitutional rights, and they should be afforded the same legal rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.
Wednesday’s ruling is the first verdict in those ongoing cases.
“Today’s ruling recognized that we actually exist,” said a plaintiff known by the pseudonym Takashi. “I want a society where sexual minorities have hope and a choice in their future.”
Kanae Doi, Japan director for non-profit Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the ruling alone would not legalize same-s.e.x marriage in the country — that would need a Supreme Court ruling, which could take several years.
Alternatively, Japan’s legislature, the Diet, could pass a law making same-s.e.x marriage legal, although there is almost no appetite among the ruling party to do so, she said.
But Wednesday’s “landmark” ruling was still significant as it was a step towards legalizing same-s.e.x marriage, she said.
Takeharu Kato, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said he was also moved by the verdict. “I never expected the court would rule this clearly,” he said in a news conference, adding that the plaintiffs are now considering taking the case to a higher court.