Prime News Ghana

Marriage equality eludes Japan's same-sex couples

By primenewsghana
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When Aki and Hikari were looking to rent a house together in Tokyo, they were told by real estate agents that the places they liked "were for couples".

"We are a couple," they would respond. The answer they were given: "This is a house for a man and woman couple."

The women, both in their 30s, have been together for seven years - now they are mothers to a baby. They coo and fuss over the infant, swap feeding and nappy-changing duties, and take turns to stay with him so one of them can get some sleep. They can't stop talking about their new baby formula machine.

Yet, in the eyes of the law, the government and a conservative Japanese society, they're not a legitimate couple. Despite the support around them, they have kept their relationship a secret from many people. It's why they don't want to reveal their real names. They say they are being extra-cautious for their son given that taboos around same-sex couples still persist.

"We're not recognised as a family of three," Aki says.

Japan is the only G7 country not to fully recognise same-sex couples or offer them clear legal protection, leaving the country's LGBTQ+ community feeling vulnerable and nearly invisible. We've changed Aki and Hikari's names to protect their identities.

Pressure has been growing to legalise same-sex unions after several district courts ruled that a ban on them was unconstitutional. But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has struggled to pass reforms in the face of opposition from traditionally-minded political leadership.

There has been some progress in a nod to younger, louder voices demanding change. Some municipalities have introduced partnership certificates, but they are not legally binding. A new government post that mainly focuses on LGBTQ+ rights has been created, and a new law targets discrimination against sexual minorities.

But the community is disappointed because the law, which met stiff opposition from conservative lawmakers, stops well short of recognising marriage equality.

Activists were also infuriated because of language in the bill which said that in taking measures to "promote understanding" of sexual minorities, "all citizens can live with peace of mind".

It drew angry reactions from critics who say it prioritised the rights of the majority, and implied that the existence of the LGBTQ+ community could be a threat to others' peace of mind.

"There are already many politicians that want to use this law as a deterrent to restrict education and activities at schools and companies - so I'm very afraid of those intentions," says Akira Nishiyama, deputy secretary general of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation.

Same-sex couples like Aki and Hikari say the lack of legal recognition is far from an abstract concern - it makes life harder for them every day.

One of the things they are struggling to get used to, for instance, is the fact that only Aki, who gave birth, has parental rights. "When I gave birth, I wrote a will to appoint my partner as our son's legal guardian in case I died during labour. And even that didn't guarantee her custody," Aki says.

If one of them is hospitalised, the other has no legal right to fill paperwork or sign consent forms on her partner's behalf. Many couples cannot get a joint mortgage to buy a house. And if one partner dies, the other has no right to inherit.

They could apply for special permissions to circumvent each of these circumstances, but the decision depends on the discretion of officials.

It was parenthood that encouraged Hikari and Aki to come out to their families and their close circle of friends, and to consider marriage.

They wanted their son to be able to explain his mothers' relationship when he grows up. They knew they couldn't get married in Japan, but they filled out a marriage application anyway.

When their application was rejected in Japan, they got married in Canada where Hikari went to university.

"We wanted to show we exist," Aki says. But in Japan, she says she and Hikari feel like they are being made invisible.

"I grew up in a small, conservative town," Aki says. "I knew I was gay from a young age and felt strongly that I had to fix it. I lived in hiding… I've given up so much. I don't want to do this anymore."

There is room for progress, Ms Nishiyama says, but those in power are strongly resistant to change: "Conservative politicians who want to protect the idea of traditional family… or the patriarchy."

"I have been actively working for the protection of LGBTQ+ people for almost 10 years - that's why I'm really frustrated because I feel that I need to really fight and I need to work hard every single day. I could live in other countries where LGBTQ+ people's rights are protected by law, but I have not chosen that path yet because I want to change Japanese society and I want to protect my own rights."

She says she will never stop fighting, but she is also exhausted and disheartened by the meagre progress.

Older gay couples are more hopeful. Keitaro and Hideki met at a ballet class more than a year ago and have been inseparable since then.

They were excited to get a partnership certificate. Even though it gives them no legal protection, they see it as a symbol of their union. "A true bond is beyond legal marriage. If you find one, it matters less how society labels it," Keitaro said.

Now in his early 40s, Keitaro came out when he was a teenager and has since lived openly as a gay man.

Hideki, who's 10 years older, has not come out to his family. He lives in a conservative rural area near Tokyo and commutes regularly to see his partner - he doesn't want to shock his 90-year-old mother whom he takes care of often.

"I think that discrimination is still very strong in Japan, as is the environment that surrounds me," Hideki says.

"I wish that more people would not have to live a double life," Keitaro says. "I think [legal protection] matters, if there's recognition... and less prejudice people will feel safe to come out."

And that's what Aki and Hikari want too - they are hopeful that one day they'll be legally married in Japan and their son will be at their wedding.

They worry for their child and wonder how he will navigate school and society. Aki says that's why she wants more not just for her family, but for others like them.

"Our wish is to have a society which is easier to live in for children of same-sex parents," she says. "We want LGBTQ people to be protected, now and in the future. It is not right that we keep hiding ourselves."