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Editorial: Legal recognition of same-sex marriage should proceed

Thirteen couples filed damages lawsuits against the government in four district courts across the nation on Feb. 14, saying the state's refusal to legally recognize the marriage of same-sex couples is against the constitutional guarantee of freedom of marriage and equality under the law. These are the first lawsuits questioning the constitutionality of Japan's legal system, which does not acknowledge same-sex marriage. They should be considered as a natural expression of the zeitgeist.

The level of social recognition for sexual minorities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is rising. However, their marriage applications are still turned down by local governments, which cite the Civil Code and other laws that say marriage is between "a husband and wife" and therefore between a man and woman.

Legally married pairs can inherit each other's assets, and are entitled to tax breaks for spouses. Foreign partners of Japanese nationals can stay in Japan as spouses. But these legal rights are beyond the reach of same-sex couples. Correcting such contradictions is the purpose of the lawsuits.

The social environment surrounding same-sex couples has changed substantially already.

In March 2015, Tokyo's Shibuya Ward introduced a partnership ordinance under which the ward office effectively recognizes same-sex relationships as marriage and takes appropriate measures. This move triggered a number of similar measures by local governments across the nation. Major cities with a total population of more than 9 million residents, such as Sapporo in northern Japan, Fukuoka in the south and Osaka in the west, introduced guidelines and other regulations on this issue.

In addition, an increasing number of companies have extended allowances and other measures that are applied to married employees to same-sex couples as well, based on the understanding that they, too, are married.

The reality is moving ahead of the legal system. What the plaintiffs are seeking is not a special right, but equality. Their argument is convincing. We cannot leave them at such a disadvantage.

A survey conducted by major advertising company Dentsu Inc. in January showed that nearly 80 percent of 6,000 respondents sided with same-sex marriage. More women than men, and more younger people, supported the arrangement. Internationally, 25 countries including the United States and leading European nations employ equal marriage rights regardless of the couples' sexes.

Article 24 of the Constitution stipulates that marriage "shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes." This provision, say some experts, does not exclude same-sex marriage, and its legal recognition, therefore, can be introduced with a new law. We don't have to wait for the courts' decision on this matter. A national debate is needed on how to find places for families with diversifying forms in our legal system.

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