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What should Japan's next step on same-sex marriage be?

TOKYO -- Thirteen same-sex couples have sued the government in the Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo and Nagoya district courts for damages, saying the refusal by the state to legally recognize their marriages violates the constitutional guarantee of equality under the law. As more than 20 nations including the United States and European countries recognize same-sex marriage and equal rights for sexual minorities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, what should Japan do?

The Mainichi Shimbun sought the opinions of three experts on possible directions the country should head. (Japanese original interviews by Miyuki Fujisawa, Medical Welfare News Department):

--- Society should accept minorities: activist Hiroshi Ikeda

(Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

Japanese same-sex couples face a variety of real difficulties because they cannot marry legally. Some people say the difficulties should be tackled one by one through legislation short of same-sex marriage, but I think this process would be slow and complicated. Local governments and the private sector can only do so much. If same-sex marriage is legally accepted, all the relevant issues get solved in a clean sweep. Social recognition will change, and life will be much easier for all those concerned.

Same-Sex Partnership Net Japan, a citizens group I serve as co-representative, has been active seeking legal recognition and guarantees for same-sex couples living together. Many of them have difficulty finding a place to live. Male couples often get turned down when they try to rent private homes. National law does not prohibit non-relatives living together in public housing but it is up to local governments to set conditions for screening applicants. Many prefectures and municipalities allow only relatives to live together in public housing, effectively excluding same-sex couples as tenants. Moreover, there are only a limited number of mortgage products that can be taken out by same-sex couples. A same-sex couple cannot share ownership of a house and when the registered owner dies the bereaved partner loses their place to live.

Inheritance is not allowed between same-sex pairs because they cannot marry legally. Opposite-sex couples can become each other's legal guardians if one of them becomes unconscious, but doing so is not easy for their same-sex counterparts. Same-sex couples may be able to manage things without legal protection when they are young and active, but they face a tough road when faced with sickness or the death of a partner.

Foreigners can get residency visas when they marry Japanese nationals of the opposite sex, but they cannot when their Japanese partners are of the same sex. Even when those foreigners manage to stay in Japan under different visas, they are forced to leave when they lose their jobs or their circumstances change. Some same-sex couples are raising children, but they cannot have joint custody, and the partner without custody is legally a stranger to the children. Same-sex couples suffer disadvantages because they do not have a variety of rights and privileges legally married couples are entitled to.

I think that in Japanese society, sexual minorities such as homosexual people are not recognized as equal and seen as living in the shadows. As the lawsuits seeking equal marriage rights proceed, we are considering launching a nationwide campaign of same-sex couples submitting marriage registrations to their local governments. Those registrations would be turned down, but we would like to make our number and needs known through the demonstration. But many people are reluctant to join because they fear their names and faces will be revealed to their local communities and relatives. That means they fear being known as gay a very great deal.

I am a gay person. I never thought that being gay is wrong, but when I was young I had to keep lying to people around me and it was tough. I thought, "I cannot live in Japan," and tried to go overseas. Please don't let us think that we cannot be happy unless we go to foreign countries.

Some people claim that same-sex marriage destroys the family, that is an outrageous thing to say. I have been living together with my New Zealand husband for more than 20 years, and we are close to each other's relatives. We have no intention of destroying traditional families. We just want society to accept minorities.

--- Atmosphere for discussion is needed first: ex-LDP policy chief Tomomi Inada

(Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

I have strong feelings toward issues related to sexual minorities because a friend of my son's was one of them. When I was the Policy Research Council chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), I set up the Special Mission Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2016, and made efforts to promote proper understanding of those issues. I think that we need to increase people's understanding about same-sex marriage first, before we begin discussions on the issue.

In the 2016 House of Councillors election, the LDP included in its campaign platform the enactment of lawmaker-initiated legislation to promote proper and diverse understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. At that time, many people inside the party were against the idea, saying it was "not conservative to promote understanding about LGBT," or that same-sex partnership was "impossible." I thought back then, "I may first have to promote understanding within the party," but I sense the atmosphere began to change last year. The issue came up in the party presidential election in September last year. Perhaps this is in part because of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 and the Olympic Charter that bans discrimination based on "sexual orientation or gender identity."

The special mission panel put together a draft outline of a bill for promoting understanding about LGBT people late last year. The package sets obligations for the state, local governments and corporations to realize a society that is tolerant and has sexual orientation and gender identity diversity. We intend to submit the draft to the current session of the Diet as a lawmaker-initiated bill and thus have to coordinate with the opposition camp. I would like to create a society in which sexual minorities can lead fulfilling lives at school or in the workplace. I want many people to know the difficulties faced by them and understand that human rights are at stake.

However, I feel that things are going too fast regarding same-sex marriage even as sufficient understanding has not yet been achieved in Japanese society. I fear that proper discussions cannot be had on the issue. The act on the promotion of the elimination of discrimination against Burakumin former outcast communities implemented in 2016 was realized after years of effort. In the United States, lots of discussions took place before the federal Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal in 2015. In Japan, too, we first have to create an environment for discussion.

Many conservatives worry that same-sex marriage may destroy the traditional family. However, I think that family forms change as society changes. Now we have senior people getting married, or families with unrelated members raising children properly. We must have fundamental discussions on issues such as what is a traditional family and what is a "family" that should be protected. We can discuss same-sex marriage in this process.

Core conservative values include respect for diversity and tolerance toward different people. Since I set up the special mission commission, I have received emails and letters from sexual minorities and their family members. Some people criticize me for "deviation" as I tackle LGBT issues, but I think that's the result of the deepening of my thoughts after exposure to various opinions. It is important to break stereotypes and listen to a variety of people.

We should first create an environment in which sexual minorities are not frowned upon and can say whatever they think. As social understanding advances, we can discuss systems that guarantee partnerships including same-sex relationships. The LDP's "basic thinking" compiled in 2016 says "careful consideration is needed" for partnership programs. We have never denied such arrangements. I guess it is a good thing to introduce some programs someday to remove inconveniences stemming from lack of legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

--- Japan will benefit from recognizing same-sex marriage: lawyer Alexander Dmitrenko

(Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

I have represented plaintiffs in a number of same-sex marriage lawsuits since 2002, when I was working for a Canadian law firm. In Canada, a law recognizing same-sex marriage was introduced in 2005 following a court decision that it is unconstitutional to deny equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. Society benefits a lot from the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. I would be happy to share Canada's experience with the people of Japan.

The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that it was unconstitutional that the civil union program, which provides legal protection to opposite-sex couples in common-law marriage, was not applied to same-sex couples living together. The decision was based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 that says, "Every individual is equal before and under the law." The ruling offered same-sex couples legal protection similar to that offered to opposite-sex couples in common-law marriages. Subsequent rulings found that civil union protection was not sufficient, and eventually same-sex marriage was legally recognized.

Discussions held in Canadian society in the period leading up to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage offered opportunities for heterosexual people to think about family, marriage, and equality. Heterosexual people are more likely to feel that same-sex couples are the same as and equal to opposite-sex couples when they are able to see that same-sex couples exist and have the same hopes, dreams and desires as they do. In 1996, in Canada, people were equally divided over their position on same-sex marriage, but the ratio of supporters grew steadily, and in 2017 about 70 percent said it is "wonderful" for same-sex couples to get legally married, expressing pride that Canada ensures equal treatment for Canada's LGBT community. Some people worry that tradition and society are damaged if same-sex marriage is recognized, but those things have never happened in the 26 countries with equal marriage rights.

Making same-sex marriage legal has a substantial impact on sexual minorities. LGBT youth tend to face difficulties and have a suicide rate that is several times higher than that for the entire youth population. Data indicates that in Canada and the United States these figures dropped substantially after same-sex marriage was legalized. It is presumed that the reason for this is that LGBT youth now feel that they don't have to cut their lives short, as society understands their feelings. In Japan, too, many young LGBT people say they have considered committing suicide. For this reason, accepting same-sex marriage would have a positive influence on Japanese youth.

From the perspective of my specialty of corporate legal affairs, making same-sex marriage a reality is important because companies benefit when their LGBT employees feel secure because they can focus on their work. If the current situation continues, Japanese sexual minorities will go overseas to find jobs, and their foreign counterparts will find trouble coming to Japan for work. I am afraid that Japan will end up losing talented people. Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven industrialized economies that do not give legal protections to same-sex couples. Japan is such an attractive country, and it is unfortunate that it is seen in a negative light because same-sex marriage is not recognized.

Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government introduced an ordinance that bans discrimination against LGBT people and others. It was 1977 when the Canadian province of Quebec prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the intervening decades, many lives have been lost and happiness laid waste due to suicides and other incidents. Japan does not have to start from scratch but can learn from the world. Strong people may be able to carry on without legal protection, but not all people can. For those people, the legal fight to seek equal marriage rights for same-sex couples is even more meaningful.

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