Many welcomed Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's recent announcement that a same-sex partnership system would be introduced for all of Tokyo in fiscal 2022. But some LGBTQ activists have pointed out that much more work needs to be done to reach true equality in Japan.
Currently, 12 of the 62 municipalities in Tokyo have introduced a same-sex partnership system, but Koike's announcement for the whole metropolitan area means that more than half of Japan's total population could now be covered by such a system.
Tokyo's Shibuya Ward became the first to introduce a same-sex partnership certificate program in 2015. As of January this year, a total of 147 municipalities across Japan have introduced similar systems, according to activist group Marriage For All Japan.
However, often these partnerships are not recognized beyond their jurisdictions, and none of them are legally binding, meaning that it is up to individual institutions like hospitals and real estate agents to choose to accept them or not.
It can be one of a number of sometimes overlapping barriers that LGBTQ people face. Japan also lacks laws that prohibit discrimination of LGBTQ people, and transgender people specifically are legally required to be sterilized as part of the gender reassignment process.
Only once they have undergone compulsory sterilization, completed gender reassignment surgery, and changed their gender to male on their family registry can a transgender man, for example, marry a cisgender woman whose gender identity matches her sex at birth.
"Japan is one of only a few countries where surgery is required to legally change gender, as is the requirement of having no children under 20 years old," says Gon Matsunaka, founder and president of LGBTQ project Pride House Tokyo Consortium. "So even if same-sex marriage becomes recognized, other rights issues will remain."
But Matsunaka, who runs Pride House Tokyo Legacy, Japan's first permanent LGBTQ center that opened in October 2020, sees the benefits of Tokyo introducing such a comprehensive partnership system.
Matsunaka is among several LGBTQ activists and rights groups who will consult with the Tokyo metropolitan government in the fall on the specifics of the system planned to be introduced in the next fiscal year.
While only the central government can revise the Constitution to recognize same-sex marriage, Matsunaka believes that the move by the Tokyo government will help pressure the state into acting.
"Until now, the conversation has been prolonged with excuses like "We still need to discuss it with citizens," and "There are a lot of opinions," but introducing the system will be very effective in strengthening the argument in legislative proceedings for recognizing same-sex marriage."
LGBTQ people are not granted benefits enjoyed by straight couples such as medical visitation rights and the ability to make medical decisions for their partners, co-parenting rights and spousal income tax deductions.
Japan also remains the only member of the Group of Seven industrialized nations not to fully recognize same-sex unions.
But in March 2021, the Sapporo District Court made a historic verdict when it ruled that the government's failure to recognize same-sex marriage is unconstitutional as it violates the right to equality.
Shinya Yamagata, 54, is a member of Marriage for All Japan and is part of concerted efforts by the group to file lawsuits and demand marriage equality in several Japanese cities.
"It enrages me that we are unreasonably excluded from marriage that provides a lot of benefits, as though we are second-class citizens, compared with heterosexuals who can get married easily," said Yamagata, who has been with his same-sex partner for 24 years and has spent several years campaigning for marriage equality.
Yamagata is a resident of Tokyo's Nakano Ward and was also involved in campaigns for Nakano to bring in its own partnership system.
While he continues his legal battle in Tokyo, Yamagata's associates campaign in cities like Osaka and Nagoya, and he says he expects that two or three more rulings will be made this year on same-sex marriage, potentially similar to the one made in Sapporo.
The rulings in addition to the Tokyo partnership system could greatly impact public discourse, and Yamagata also believes that this will apply more pressure on the Japanese government to finally recognize same-sex marriage.
Kanae Doi, Japan director of Human Rights Watch, says that including recognizing same-sex marriage, "legislation prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people, and removing sterilization as a requirement for gender reassignment surgery is necessary to move forward."
But Doi also expressed concern that despite public perception of LGBTQ issues improving, legislative progress has been slow, making comparisons to campaigns for enabling married couples to take separate surnames that have been ongoing for around 20 years.
While confident that there will be change, Doi noted a sense of urgency. "The reason being is that LGBTQ people face serious and in some cases life-threatening problems. There is a difference in implementing policy after one year and implementing it after 10 years." she said.
"The current reality is that these laws will not pass (yet) in the House of Representatives. But the LGBTQ community, as well as its allies, have made great gains." she said.
"If we do not give up and continue to raise our voices, I am certain there will be a breakthrough."