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Seeking equality, couple in Kyoto calls for legalization of same-sex marriage in Japan

Machi Sakata, left, and Theresa Stieger relax with their dog at home in the city of Kyoto. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

KYOTO -- A couple in this west Japan city are living with the anxiety of not being able to legally marry in the country, because they are both women.

    In early October, laughter echoed in a quiet corner of a townhouse neighborhood in Kyoto. Machi Sakata, 42, and Theresa Stieger, 38, were chatting while petting their dog. On their days off, they walk along the banks of the Kamo River with their dog and interact with local residents.

    They met in 2008 through friends, and in 2013, they bought a "machiya" townhouse in Kyoto together, which they renovated and turned into their precious home where they live with their beloved dog. However, as it is difficult for two people of the same sex to get a shared housing loan, the house is registered under Sakata's name alone.

    Since they are not legally married in Japan, Stieger will not be able to inherit the house if Sakata dies before her. Even if Stieger could continue to live in the house because of a bequest in Sakata's will, she would have to pay a large amount of inheritance tax because she won't be able to take advantage of the tax break for spouses. They said, "Why can't we have the rights that married couples have as a matter of course, just because we are the same sex?"

    There are other disadvantages as well: visa issues due to Stieger being a U.S. citizen. She cannot obtain a spousal visa, which she could obtain after marriage, nor could she apply for permanent residence, for which she is eligible after three years of marriage. Stieger, who entered Japan on a working visa, recalled, "I was terrified that if I couldn't work, I wouldn't be able to stay in Japan with Machi." Although she was able to obtain permanent residency in 2019, more than 10 years after arriving in Japan, she still feels a sense of inequality.

    Claiming that the current situation in which same-sex couples cannot marry is a form of government-recognized discrimination, the two joined a class action in 2019 as plaintiffs in a "same-sex marriage lawsuit" in five district courts across Japan (Sapporo, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka) to demand the realization of a society in which same-sex couples can marry.

    The couple has two documents related to their marriage. One is a marriage certificate issued to them in 2015 when they married in the U.S., where same-sex marriage is legal, and the other is a marriage registration rejected by the Kyoto Municipal Government because it was deemed illegitimate for two women to be parties to a marriage.

    The difference is clear. On the marriage registration in Japan, the words "husband" and "wife" are written on the form, while on the marriage certificate in the U.S., the words "party" are written as "A" and "B" and the couple themselves specify their genders. On their marriage notification to the city of Kyoto, they crossed out the word "husband" and instead wrote in "wife."

    When she was 20 years old, Sakata once told her mother that she liked women. Her mother now understands, but at the time, she replied, "You're young so it's like a disease, isn't it?" Sakata felt shocked because she had expected that her mother, who had raised her by herself and was very understanding, would accept her. This is why Sakata strongly hopes that the law will be enacted.

    "If (same-sex marriage is) approved by law, I think it will have an impact on the generation that has a bad image of homosexuality." The legalization of same-sex marriage is important not only from a rights perspective, but also for greater understanding in society and mental peace for those involved.

    Sakata and Stieger described their hope the candidates in the upcoming House of Representatives election will bring about change, saying, "Public understanding of same-sex marriage is steadily growing. We hope that they will update their senses in line with the movements of society."

    Marriage for All Japan, a public interest incorporated association based in Tokyo that aims to legalize same-sex marriage, opened the website Marifor Kokkai Meter, to visualize the approval or disapproval of same-sex marriage among Diet members in advance of the lower house election. Sakata plans to use this website as a reference to carefully identify and vote for candidates who will act on her behalf, regardless of political party.

    (Japanese original by Yumi Shibamura, Osaka City News Department)


    Regarding same-sex marriage, in March this year, the Sapporo District Court ruled for the first time in Japan that the refusal to recognize legal marriages between people of the same sex is unconstitutional and contrary to Article 14 of the Constitution of Japan, which stipulates "All of the people are equal under the law." Fumiko Suda, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said, "We need to do something about the discrimination that exists now as a matter of urgency."

    Looking overseas, understanding of same-sex marriage is spreading, with about 30 countries and regions recognizing it. In Japan as well, according to a survey conducted by Tokyo's Shibuya Ward government and a certified nonprofit organization Nijiiro Diversity based in the city of Osaka, as of Oct. 11, 130 local governments have introduced a "partnership system" that recognizes same-sex relationships as equivalent to marriage, and about 2,200 couples are using the system. However, since the partnership system is different from marriage, legal issues still remain.

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