Marriage equality advocates hail Tokyo court ruling

Plaintiffs and supporters react in front of the Tokyo District Court in Tokyo on Wednesday, following a ruling in a lawsuit filed by same-sex couples seeking damages from the government. (AFP photo)

TOKYO: Japan's failure to legally protect same-sex partners is an "unconstitutional situation", a Tokyo court ruled Wednesday in a decision hailed by marriage equality advocates.

The country is the only one in the Group of Seven not to recognise same-sex unions. Its 1947 constitution stipulates that "marriage shall be only with the mutual consent of both sexes".

More than a dozen couples have filed lawsuits in district courts across Japan arguing that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitution.

The coordinated legal action, launched in 2019, is meant to pressure lawmakers to work towards marriage equality.

On Wednesday the Tokyo District Court ruled that the definition of marriage in the constitution was legal, in a blow to the plaintiffs.

But it added that "the current lack of legal framework that allows same-sex partners to become family is a serious threat and obstacle" to individual dignity.

"This creates an unconstitutional situation with regards to clause two of article 24," the court said.

Nakasai, a 35-year-old supporter of the legal action who asked to use a nickname, told AFP outside the court that the ruling was "a big step forwards".

"It went as far as to criticise the lack of a legal system that allows same-sex couples to become family," she said.

"But an 'unconstitutional situation' is more nuanced than an outright declaration of unconstitutionality, which is a bit disappointing."

In March last year a court in Sapporo made a similar ruling that fanned hopes for change.

That optimism was dampened in June this year, however, when an Osaka court ruled that Japan's same-sex marriage ban was indeed constitutional.

After the hearing Wednesday, plaintiffs and supporters unfurled a banner outside the court saying the ruling represented "progress towards marriage equality".

Eight people had filed the Tokyo lawsuit together, including Chizuka Oe, who said she was relieved by the decision because it "referred to same-sex couples as a family unit".

"Now I hope that legislators will engage in active discussions on this subject."

Recent years have seen Japan -- run by a ruling coalition that espouses traditional family values -- take small steps towards embracing sexual diversity.

In early November, Tokyo began issuing partnership certificates that allow LGBTQ couples to be treated as married for a range of public services in areas such as medicine and welfare.

More than 200 smaller local authorities across Japan had already made moves to recognise non-heterosexual partnerships.

In the United States the Senate passed a landmark bill on Tuesday protecting same-sex marriage.

Also on Tuesday, Singapore's parliament decriminalised sex between men, but amended the constitution to effectively block full marriage equality.

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