Same-sex couples can now obtain partnership certificates in Tokyo

gGood news arrived in Soyoka Yamamoto’s inbox on Tuesday. The 37-year-old, a representative of the organization Partnership Act for Tokyo, received an email with a downloadable PDF of a certificate from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, acknowledging the relationship between her and her partner of 11 years.

“This is the first time the public has officially recognized us as a couple,” says Yamamoto, who has called on the Tokyo government to make the change. “It’s weird right now, but I feel safe.”

Supporters say the Tokyo government’s issuance of partnership certificates to same-sex couples, which began November 1, is an important moment for LGBTQ rights in Japan.

Tokyo is not the first – several prefectures in Japan have already introduced some form of partnership system. But the addition of Japan’s capital and most populous city now means more than 60% of Japan’s population is covered in this way, according to advocates and local media.

Obstacles remain, but “it’s a big step for future action,” Gon Matsunaka, president of Pride House Tokyo, told TIME. “It’s a good step for everyone’s life.”

Miki showing a photo of her wedding with her partner Katie at their home in Tokyo on October 30. Tokyo began issuing partnership certificates to same-sex couples who live and work in the capital on Nov. 1, a long-awaited move to a country without marriage equality.

Yuichi Yamazaki—AFP/Getty Images

How does getting a partnership certificate help same-sex couples?

As of the end of last week, more than 130 same-sex couples had applied online for partnership certificates, which are available to couples with at least one partner living, working or studying in Tokyo. Under Tokyo’s so-called partnership oath system, same-sex couples can benefit from certain social assistance services and programs that opposite-sex couples are eligible for. A partnership certificate could simplify housing by making it easier for couples to apply for mortgages or move into public family housing. It can allow a person to collect their partner’s life insurance, to consent to medical intervention if their partner is ill or injured, or to visit their partner in public hospitals.

Read more: A court has ruled Japan’s ban on same-sex marriage “unconstitutional”. This is the next step for LGBTQ rights

“We always have to explain our relationship to get services,” says Yamamoto. “But now it will be easier. We don’t have to convince anyone that we’re a couple.

Others agreed that their new certificates would give them a bit more security. “Now we will be able to use the certificate to prove our relationship as a family in hospitals in case of emergency. It will give us peace of mind,” Mamiko Moda, who is raising a 10-month-old baby with her partner, told local media. The 42-year-old was speaking at a press conference in October when applications for the certificates opened.

Yet the new system is not legally binding and partnership certificates do not guarantee full marriage rights. “It’s totally different,” says Matsunaka. He points out that Tokyo couples who want to move may no longer be covered and that the private sector does not have to follow the system.

Despite his relief at receiving a certificate, Yamamoto says the new system is “not really enough for us to believe we are equal”.

Plaintiffs pose for a photo during a press conference after the same-sex marriage trial at the Sapporo District Court in Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture on March 17, 2021. (The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP)

Plaintiffs pose for a photo during a press conference after the same-sex marriage trial at the Sapporo District Court in Sapporo, Hokkaido prefecture, March 17, 2021.

The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP

What LGBTQ rights look like in Japan

Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven (G7) of industrialized nations that does not fully recognize same-sex partnerships and it ranks second to last, just ahead of Turkey, for gay and transgender rights in the United Nations economic cooperation. -operation and development (OECD), a group of 38 wealthy and middle-income countries. The ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in power almost continuously since 1955, promotes traditional family values. Attempts to advance LGBTQ rights have drawn backlash and discriminatory comments from some LDP lawmakers.

But Japan’s LGBTQ movement has grown in momentum and public support in recent years, especially among young people. More than 92% of Japanese people aged 18 to 29 say homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center.

A push by activists ahead of the Tokyo Olympics last summer to pressure the government to pass a law banning discrimination against LGBTQ people has failed. But it sparked an outpouring of public support, with hundreds of thousands of people signing petitions backing the law. Major companies – including Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Deloitte and Japanese company SegaSammy (whose holdings include Sega video games) – have backed the legislation.

Read more: Japan failed to improve LGBTQ rights ahead of the Olympics. Japanese athletes go out anyway

Campaigners say the latest news is a step in the right direction. “This momentum will change public awareness and also the awareness of businesses and some local politicians,” Matsunaka says.

Kanae Doi, the Japanese director of the NGO Human Rights Watch, said the new system shows overwhelming popular support for marriage equality and “highlights the delay and reluctance of the national government and the LGBT Rights Diet”. (The Diet is Japan’s legislative body.) “The Japanese government and the Diet must heed the demands of the Japanese people and must introduce and pass comprehensive laws on LGBT equality, including in the area of ​​marriage” , she adds.

The latest development could help advance marriage equality, although campaigners acknowledge that change in the next two years is unlikely. The current government may not face a general election until 2025, and a series of challenges that weave their way through the country’s legal system – more than a dozen same-sex couples have filed lawsuits in court district of Japan on Valentine’s Day in 2019 – may take years to see a result.

So far, court cases have had mixed results. In the first ruling in March last year, the Sapporo District Court said Japan’s definition of marriage, which excludes same-sex couples, violated constitutional guarantees of equality. But in June, an Osaka court ruled that freedom of marriage in the constitution only referred to male-female unions and therefore the ban on same-sex marriage was constitutional. The Tokyo District Court is due to issue its decision on a third case at the end of November.

Read more: This Buddhist monk is a makeup artist and LGBTQ activist

Doi of Human Rights Watch says having a majority of Japan covered by same-sex partnership systems will increase pressure on the national government to take action on LGBTQ rights and equality of marriage, and will influence judges in ongoing marriage equality litigation.

“Influence over the judges is important because unless the national government or the Diet acts quickly, the Supreme Court will ultimately be the institution that decides whether it is constitutional to leave the marriage law as it is or not. “, she says.

Although progress is slow, supporters say they are optimistic about the future. “Tokyo’s partnership system,” says Matsunaka, “is a good sign for the younger generation.”

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