A Japanese court on Wednesday ruled that the existing legal system not allowing same-sex couples to marry and become families is in a "state of unconstitutionality" that infringes their human rights.
The ruling, welcomed by plaintiffs, is seen as another sign of progress toward marriage equality in a country where traditional family values still prevail, although the Tokyo District Court said the ban is constitutional, dismissing damages sought by them.
The court rejected the claim by eight plaintiffs including same-sex couples for 1 million yen ($7,200) each, after they had submitted marriage registration applications but were rejected in accordance with civil law provisions.
Still, Presiding Judge Momoko Ikehara pointed out the absence of a legal system in Japan to enable homosexuals to constitute a family is "a grave threat and obstacle" to their right to live and there is "no reasonable basis in light of personal dignity."
"A state of unconstitutionality is a big step forward. I feel slightly relieved," said Chizuka Oe, one of the eight plaintiffs.
But the 62-year-old Tokyo resident added at a press conference, "I do have mixed feelings about what will happen in the legislature in the future. We need to carry out effective activities."
It was the third ruling among similar lawsuits brought to district courts in the country, with the previous two also rejecting demands for compensation but arriving at different outcomes over the constitutionality of the ban.
The Sapporo District Court said in March 2021 that Japanese laws not recognizing same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, but the Osaka District Court ruled in June this year that banning it did not violate the Constitution.
Both courts, however, suggested a failure by parliament to improve legal protection for same-sex couples would violate the supreme law.
The plaintiffs, who are in their 30s to 60s and from areas including Tokyo and Okinawa Prefecture, were among same-sex couples who filed similar lawsuits in 2019 in Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.
As civil law and family registration law provisions are based on marriage between a man and a woman, privileges resulting from matrimony, including inheritance rights, tax benefits and joint custody of children, are only granted to heterosexual couples.
In the lawsuit filed in February 2019, the plaintiffs argued that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the Constitution, which ensures the right to equality and guarantees the freedom to marry.
Article 24 of the Constitution that guarantees the freedom of marriage stipulates, "Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes."
The state has argued that not recognizing same-sex marriage was "within the legislative discretion of the Diet."
Masayuki Tanamura, a professor at Waseda University's School of Law said Wednesday's ruling is a "step forward for marriage equality," but added the court should have made a more "proactive constitutional judgement" to help promote debate in the Diet.
The ruling comes after some local authorities, including the Tokyo metropolitan government, began issuing certifications recognizing sexual minority couples, a move intended to help them apply for municipal housing, among other benefits.
But the certificates are not legally binding, with Japan remaining the only Group of Seven country that refuses to recognize same-sex marriage.
According to activist group Marriage For All Japan, 33 countries and regions around the world including Australia, Cuba and Ireland recognize same-sex marriage.
Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019, the first in Asia to do so.