A lower court in Japan has ruled that the country’s ban on marriage equality violates constitutional protections against discrimination. While same-sex sexual relations have been legal in the country since 1880 and some local governments grant limited rights to same-sex couples, the country does not nationally recognize marriage equality or same-sex civil unions. According to the NBC News, the decision by the Sapporo District Court in Hokkaido is non-binding, but experts and activists hope the case is a first step towards full recognition of marriage equality in the country.
“Sexual orientation cannot be changed or selected by a person's will,” Judge Tomoko Takebo wrote in his ruling, finding the ban on marriage equality violated Article 14 of the Japanese constitution barring discrimination based on “race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”
"Only because the gender of the person we love is different, we can't get married,” one of the plaintiffs, a woman identified only as “E” to protect her identity, told reporters following the decision. “We live the same lives as heterosexuals, have the same troubles and the same joys. Though our lives are exactly the same, the nation wouldn't recognize this.”
The decision came in a case brought by three same-sex couples, two consisting of men and one of women, seeking compensation for hardship and damages resulting from the government’s ban on marriage equality. The three couples sought 1 million yen in damages. Although the judge ruled the ban on marriage equality as unconstitutional, he denied the plaintiff’s request for financial compensation. The ruling also has little legal effect and laws banning marriage equality remain on the books.
Despite not winning compensation, Takeharu Kato, a lawyer who represented E and the other plaintiffs, praised the “revolutionary” verdict and urged parliament to quickly enact marriage equality. Other activists were equally happy with the decision.
“Its value is absolutely measureless," Gon Matsunaka, director of activist group Marriage for All Japan and representative of Pride House Tokyo, said. “Until the ruling was announced, we didn't know this was what we'd get and I'm just overjoyed.”
Japan is currently the only country in the G-7 group of leading economic nations to not recognize marriage equality. Some local prefectures, though, issue “partnership certificates” that grant some rights to same-sex couples that are available to heterosexual couples. However, marriage equality has no national recognition. Some expressed hope the decision will bring about change to the country’s outdated homophobic laws on marriage equality.
"Japan has always been conservative, but these days things are becoming more open," Kyoko Enomoto, a 60-year-old dentist, said. "I think it will open up a lot more from now on.”