TOKYO/OBIHIRO, Hokkaido -- Thirteen couples will be filing damages suits against the state at four district courts across the country on Feb. 14, arguing that denying same-sex couples the right to marry is a violation of their constitutional right to be treated equally under law.
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Of the 13 couples, two responded to interviews with the Mainichi Shimbun. What they want, they said, was not special rights, but equality. With modest hopes in their hearts, they will head to the courts in the first lawsuits of their kind in Japan.
Ryosuke Kunimi, 44, from the city of Obihiro in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, has been living with his partner since 2004. The two men say that they are "more family than partners," and that "together, they make one." A public school teacher, Kunimi is a pseudonym that he goes by as the man has for years supported other LGBT people and made safe havens for youth. He met his partner while participating in such activities.
Both sets of parents are accepting of their relationship. However, Japanese society does not allow same-sex couples to use various services that are available to married couples of opposite sexes, such as those related to inheritance and loans. What frightened Kunimi recently was a newspaper article reporting that a local general hospital was limiting entry to the inpatient ward to patients and their families as a countermeasure against the spread of infections.
"There are a lot of (sexual minorities) who are anxious that they won't be treated the same as married couples in the case of an emergency," Kunimi said.
What Kunimi and his partner hope for is not only a change in the legal system, but also a change in society's awareness.
When they see people at their workplaces being congratulated for getting married or having children, they get sad, wondering why they have to hide their relationship and never get congratulated. Kunimi, who takes part in activities supporting youth, doesn't want those young people to face the same pain that he experiences now when they grow up to be adults.
Kunimi's partner has previously worked at a hotel, during which he often heard employees slander male guests who stayed in the same room together behind their backs. He thinks that if their marriage were to be legally approved, their parents would be able to tell those around them with heads held high, taking a huge load off their shoulders.
"Loving someone is the same, whether you're homosexual or heterosexual, and it has to be respected," he said. "It would make me happy if looking at us gives a stranger hope."
Chizuka Oe, 58, and Yoko Ogawa, 55, who have been living together in Tokyo's Nakano Ward for more than 20 years were the first couple to register under the Nakano Ward Partnership Oath certification program that started last year. But the certification does not guarantee the same rights as marriage, and only 11 municipal governments nationwide issue similar certificates. Oe and Ogawa believe they should have equal rights wherever they choose to live, and that prompted them to become plaintiffs in a damages suit against the state.
They have experienced more than their share of pain. When, at Ogawa's mother's funeral some 20 years ago, Ogawa's relatives looked quizzically at Oe who was helping out with everything, they couldn't come out and say, "We're family." Several years ago, when Ogawa fell ill, she told the hospital that Oe was a close friend with whom she lived.
At the end of the year sometime back, Oe received a phone call from her sister, saying that their father was being grilled and chided for the fact that his daughter was homosexual. Oe rushed to their home, and tried to explain herself to them in tears.
The women believe that an open society that approves of same-sex marriage is likely a society that's kinder to everyone. And that's the question they would like to pose to society and the government through the lawsuit.
(Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Hokkaido News Department, and Miyuki Fujisawa, Medical Welfare News Department)