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Uproar as same-sex couples to be counted as 'other relatives' in Japan census

A sample of a national census held in 2015 is seen in this image from the official website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

TOKYO -- A national census, conducted once every five years, will be held this fall to collect information from all residents and households in Japan, but same-sex couples are effectively excluded from it.

    When filling a form out for the national census, applicants have to describe the relationship between them and the head of the household. One of the opposite-sex couple can choose "spouse" for the information to be included in the tally, but a person in a same-sex relationship is classified under "other relatives." Such couples and experts are criticizing that the method does not reflect the real situation and is meaningless as a national consensus.

    Questions such as ones asking about the working status of household members are included in the census, with the aim to utilize the collected information for policy making by the central and local governments, among other goals.

    In the answer sheet, applicants have to fill out the names and sex of all members of the household, as well as choose whether they are the "head of the household," "spouse of the household head" or a "child," among other choices in one section. It can be assumed that one of the couple in a same-sex relationship would choose "head of the household," while the other picks the spouse. However, in such a case, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, when tallying the results, workers check the answer in this section against other items on the sheet because "it could be a simple mistake made in writing." If the answer is judged as "probably not a mistake," workers change the answer to "other relatives." This category refers to uncles, aunts, cousins and such relatives.

    If a same-sex couple has established their own household, isn't it a mistake to describe one of them as equivalent to an uncle or an aunt?

    In contrast, an opposite-sex couple in a common-law marriage -- the same status as a same-sex couple in terms of not having submitted a marriage registration form and not defined as legally married -- is treated the same as a legally married couple in the census. It is explained on the section of the answer sheet asking whether the applicant has a spouse or not, which reads, "Please fill in the answer regardless of whether or not you have submitted a (marriage) registration form."

    Why are same-sex couples treated differently from those in common-law marriage?

    A representative of the Statistics Bureau told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Under Japan's legal system, marriage is between those of the opposite sex. If their relationship is very similar to that of a legally married couple and the only difference is that they have not submitted their marriage registry, it's in line with the objective of the national consensus to treat common-law marriage in the same way as legal marriage." They continued, "Same-sex marriage isn't recognized in Japan, so in the census we cannot recognize them as being in a marital relationship. That is why we are counting them under the 'other relatives' category."

    This kind of situation has been seen as problematic by same-sex couple organizations. Hiroshi Ikeda, co-head of Same-sex Partnership Net Japan, a voluntary group demanding legal protection for same-sex couples, pointed out that "the national census should be a chance to grasp the number of same-sex couples."

    In the previous census conducted in 2015, several same-sex couple groups submitted a written request to the internal affairs ministry demanding to be appropriately categorized and counted, and the subject came up during a question and answer session at a House of Representatives Budget Committee in February 2018 and February 2020. Since May, Same-sex Partnership Net has submitted written requests to members of an expert panel of the national census and urged it to "include same-sex couples as what they are in the tally," among other demands.

    Ikeda got married in 2018 to his same-sex partner in New Zealand, which allows same-sex marriage. But in the Japanese census, his spouse will be put under the "other relatives" category. "We believe we are the same as other married opposite-sex couples. Although same-sex couples have been calling out (for recognition) for a long time, we have not gotten a response, and it's irritating."

    Saori Kamano from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, who is well-acquainted on quantitative research of sexual minorities, said, "When thinking about the accuracy of the results of the survey, same-sex couples should be treated in the same way as opposite-sex couples in common marriage or legal marriage to get a grasp of their numbers. An ideal situation for a research method would be to have a design that can capture all variations of households, such as installing the choice 'partner' in the question asking about applicants' relationships."

    Ikeda is planning to request the internal affairs ministry to collect and publish census answers as "responses considered to be from same-sex couples" for a same-sex couple in a household who call each other their spouse.

    (Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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