TOKYO — As the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to sanction same-sex marriage across the United States, gay couples in Japan are belatedly making strides of their own.
Starting this summer, one of Tokyo's largest districts will begin issuing domestic partner agreements that for the first time will give legal protection to gay couples in Japan.
"The purpose of the ordinance is to promote the diversity of society — which means to accept all the people irrespective of sex or sexuality," said Shigeru Saito, director of Shibuya Ward's General Affair's Division.
The new law stops short of conferring full marriage rights and lacks specific penalties. But it will forbid discrimination in housing — a common problem for openly gay couples, according to advocates — and provide other protections, such as ensuring medical consultation and hospital visitation rights, and requiring notification in event of the death of a marriage partner.
The measure will not affect taxes or other benefits regulated by the national government.
Supporters say that despite the shortcomings, the new law may speed awareness and acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Japan. According to a 2012 survey by the Dentsu advertising company, about 5% of Japan's population belongs to that community.
"It's good, but it's just a first step," said Olivier Fabre, who heads a gay support organization for Reuters' employees in Japan. "There is still a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding in Japan about LGBT. There are many people who are very hopeful that this has raised awareness."
Although there is little outright hostility toward the LGBT community in Japan, there hasn't much outright acceptance, either — at least until now.
A Reuters poll in June 2013 found that only 24% of Japanese favored same-sex marriage, the second-lowest of 16 developed countries surveyed. Poland was the lowest.
Western influence may finally be propelling the issue here, said Gregory Noble, professor of comparative politics and public administration at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Social Science. "Just in the last six months or so I have noticed more attention paid to gay marriage, probably mostly because of developments in the U.S."
Costumed participants attend the Tokyo Rainbow Pride
Costumed participants attend the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade. (Photo: Christopher Jue, European Pressphoto Agency)
Conservative groups organized several demonstrations against the Shibuya ordinance while it was being debated earlier this year. And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed doubt during a discussion in the Diet in February as to whether gay marriage was allowed under Japan's constitution.
Same-sex marriage has "fundamental implications for the place of the family in our society, and so requires extremely careful examination," Abe said.
Article 24 of the constitution states that "marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes." While that could imply that same-sex marriage is not permitted, some scholars argue that the language is intended only to ensure gender equality between marriage partners.
Abe's wife, Akie Abe, is an open supporter of gay rights.
Patrick Linehan, a former U.S. consul general in Osaka who lived openly with his gay partner, said in an interview last year that attitudes in Japan are changing, in part because of a lack of organized opposition.
"When I first came to Japan in 1988, I was told routinely by everyone that, 'Oh, there are no gay people in Japan,'" Linehan said in a May 2014 interview with Public Policy magazine.
"One thing we don't have to deal with in Japan that we have to deal with in the United States and many other countries are the organized groups that exist solely to fight against gay people," Linehan said. "There are no churches or political parties that stand up against gay groups and say, 'We hate gay people — gay people are the devil.' These organized opposition groups to our very existence are not here."
Maki Muraki, who founded of the gay-support organization Nijiiro Diversity two years ago, said her company provided diversity training for more than 100 businesses in Japan last year, including some of the country's largest.
"The fact that major companies in Japan are now dealing with this issue has a big impact on society. Once the companies start to take action, the general understanding will expand very quickly," she said.
The Education Ministry earlier this year issued a report instructing teachers and schools to expand a program protecting students with gender identity disorder to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students as well.
But the ballot box is where the change may prove most significant. Ken Hasebe, the Shibuya assembly member who sponsored the domestic partner law, was elected mayor in late April. His predecessor also had backed the measure.
The vote, Fabre said, will "send a signal to other politicians that the (LGBT) community is now worth courting."