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TOKYO – A Japanese high court declared the nation’s refusal to legally recognize same-sex marriage as unconstitutional on Thursday. This decision, following a landmark verdict in 2021, amplifies pressure on the government to take stronger measures to safeguard sexual minorities.

The Sapporo High Court reaffirmed the previous ruling, stating that the absence of recognition for same-sex marriage violates constitutional principles of equality. However, it dismissed the claim for emotional distress damages totaling 6 million yen ($40,600) sought by three same-sex couples in Hokkaido.

Disappointed by the outcome, the plaintiffs intend to challenge the decision by appealing to the Supreme Court.

In a significant legal milestone, this ruling marks the first instance where a high court has weighed in on six lawsuits challenging Japan’s laws’ refusal to recognize same-sex marriage. The court deemed these provisions not only in violation of Article 14, guaranteeing the right to equality, but also Article 24, which stipulates marriage should be based on the mutual consent of “both sexes.”

In a groundbreaking declaration, the court affirmed that Article 24 can be interpreted to encompass marriages between individuals of the same sexes. Presiding Judge Kiyofumi Saito emphasized when handing down the ruling that while the Constitution’s enactment did not anticipate same-sex marriages, the clause “should be interpreted against the background where respect for individuals is more clearly considered.”

The ruling also emphasized that legalizing same-sex marriages would not result in any disadvantage or harm, including in terms of social impact. It stated that any discomfort or aversion towards same-sex marriages is solely based on “sensuous, emotional reasons” and can be addressed through the promotion of public awareness about the unnecessary differentiation between same-sex couples.

Despite increasing pressure from the LGBT community and its supporters, Japan remains the only Group of Seven major industrialized country that has not legalized same-sex marriage or civil unions.

The government has argued in the lawsuit that the Constitution presumes marriage is only between heterosexual couples.

Regarding the rejection of the plaintiffs’ claims for damages, the court explained, “It cannot be said that discussions at the Diet…regarding provisions not allowing same-sex marriage are clearly in violation of the Constitution.”

One of the plaintiffs expressed during a press conference in Sapporo that she was “encouraged by the forward-thinking” nature of the ruling.

At the district court level, varying opinions have been given regarding same-sex marriage, with the Tokyo District Court being the latest to issue a ruling on the matter earlier on Thursday.

The Tokyo court has determined that the absence of legal acknowledgment of same-sex marriage in Japan is unconstitutional, aligning with the rulings of the Tokyo and Fukuoka district courts in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

Similarly, the Sapporo and Nagoya district courts ruled the prohibition of same-sex marriage as unconstitutional in 2021 and 2023, while the Osaka District Court deemed it constitutional in 2022. Despite these rulings, all courts have rejected compensation claims.

In the recent ruling of the Tokyo District Court, Presiding Judge Tomoyuki Tobisawa highlighted the absence of legal provisions akin to heterosexual marriages for same-sex couples as “a deprivation of a key part of their personal identity.”

However, Tobisawa ultimately determined that it is not unconstitutional at present, suggesting that the Diet possesses “many options” to address the issue.

The eight plaintiffs, comprised of individuals in their 40s and 50s employed in various sectors and residing in Tokyo, argued that the government’s failure to legislate on the matter infringed upon their rights and caused them emotional distress. They had sought compensation of 1 million yen each from the central government.

Japan’s civil and family registration laws are structured around the concept of marriage exclusively between opposite-sex partners, thereby conferring various privileges such as inheritance rights, tax benefits, and joint custody solely to heterosexual couples. To address this disparity, several municipalities have begun issuing partnership certificates, aiming to extend certain public service benefits to same-sex couples, albeit without legal binding. Read the story in full here.

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