Monumental cultural shifts are almost commonplace this day in age. The world has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many to live their lives online. Even before, in the Western world, rising populism threatened to unwind globalism while ushering in controversial political figures. On the other hand, Japan has seemed shielded from several of these tectonic shifts. Yet, change may be afoot for this culturally conservative society.

For instance, the oft-neglected LGBT community in the country recently realized a landmark legal victory. Earlier this week, the Sapporo District Court in Hokkaido ruled that denying same-sex marriages represents a discriminatory and unconstitutional act by the government.

In the ruling, Presiding Judge Tomoko Takebe noted, "Sexual orientation is not something that a person can choose and change at their own will." She continued, "It is discriminatory treatment that gay people are being denied even part of the legal benefits resulting from marriage, and it goes beyond legislative discretionary powers." More specifically, Takebe explained that denying same-sex marriages violates equality guarantees outlined in Article 14 of the Constitution.

Prior to the verdict, local governments across Japan have been making their own accommodations for same-sex couples. Partnership certification systems were launched in major municipalities such as Tokyo, Saitama, and others. The systems experienced widespread demand, with certificates issued to some 1,300 couples as of September 2020.

Yet, the certificates do not trump Japanese law, which does not recognize same-sex marriages. Instead, the couples received limited rights, such as being recognized as a family when applying for public housing, insurance, and family discounts for services like mobile phone plans.


The Sapporo ruling may be the beginning of legislative pressure to amend the Civil Code in Japan. While the Sapporo court was the first to rule in favor of same-sex couples, trials have also started in five district courts, including Tokyo and Osaka. Currently, Japan is the only one of the Group of Seven industrialized nations that doesn't recognize same-sex unions.

Naturally, Japanese netizens reacted online. Here are some of their comments:

  • “Recent polls show that a majority of young people in Japan are in favor of supporting same-sex marriages.”
  • "I first heard of this news from an American source, but it's good news, and I hope it begins a trend."
  • “This is historic.”
  • "A Dutch male colleague was talking about his husband the other day in a completely nonchalant and normal way. I thought how nice that was, and the Dutch weren't even early to amend their laws...this can definitely happen in Japan."
  • “I think Japan has finally made the correct ruling. The original reason marriage is stipulated in the Constitution is to prevent forced marriages and limit marriage to consensual couples. No distinction is made concerning gender, and it was assumed that marriage would be between a man and a woman. I hope we can rule to accept same-sex marriages."
  • "They decided that banning same-sex unions is unconstitutional. Many people have fought for several years to realize this ruling. The plaintiff Mr. Kunimi said he was in tears upon hearing the ruling. Hopefully, this victory will show us the way to making lasting change."

However, clearly, controversy remains. Some seemed to express reservations about proposed changes to the law:

  • “How unconstitutional is it, really? People are still arrested for polygamy. And what about consanguineous marriages?”
  • “Are judges free to interpret the Constitution?”
  • “I think the situation between LGB people and transgender people is different.”

Either way, the situation in Japan will remain the same for the time being. To change the law, the Parliament will have to enact legislation.

By - Luke Mahoney.