While the recognition of legally binding same-sex marriages across Japan still feels like a distant hope, Ibaraki Prefecture has just taken an unprecedented stand on marriage equality.
The prefecture, which borders northeastern Tokyo, started issuing partnership certificates to LGBT couples on Monday, July 1.
While 22 municipal governments across Japan already issue such certificates, including Tokyo’s Shibuya and Setagaya wards, Ibaraki is the first to do so across an entire prefecture.
What does this mean for LGBT couples?
Under Ibaraki’s new system, LGBT couples can submit “partnership oaths,” which will grant them more legal rights in situations concerning medical consent forms, hospital visitation rights, and applying for prefecture-run housing with their partner.
Unfortunately, the certificates still don’t explicitly give couples the same legal rights as traditional husband and wife unions.
Two couples have already submitted their partnerships oaths on Monday. One being from openly-lesbian Mito Municipal Assembly member Yuri Namekawa and her partner who have been together for two and a half years.
Ibaraki’s push to eliminate prejudice
In a recent news conference, Ibaraki Gov. Kazuhiko Oigawa said the decision was “a matter of human rights.” He explained, “we must work swiftly in order to eliminate discrimination and prejudice.”
We [the prefecture of Ibaraki] are setting the stage for sexual minorities to be able to live with confidence and pride
Officials crafted a detailed plan on how Ibaraki could promote diversity back in November 2018, and in March of this year, they passed a local law banning discrimination against sexual minorities. It’s only the second prefecture to pass such a law. Tokyo was the first.
“We [the prefecture of Ibaraki] are setting the stage for sexual minorities to be able to live with confidence and pride,” Oigawa said.
The prefecture also announced it would establish a consultation service for the LGBT community and conduct a survey about LGBT issues to help guide future governing decisions.
Aya Kamikawa, an assembly member of Tokyo’s Setagaya ward who is a trans woman, tweeted that the most significant aspect of Ibaraki’s move is the size of the population affected by the law.
— 上川あや 世田谷区議会議員 (@KamikawaAya) June 24, 2019
Previously, the largest area to legally recognize same-sex partnership certificates was Osaka city, which has 2.7 million people. Ibaraki Prefecture’s population is almost 3 million.
Japan’s struggle with LGBT rights is real
While smaller governing bodies are taking equality into their own hands, Japan’s fight for LGBT equality is far from over.
The Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is reluctant to enact any type of federal marriage legislation under the ideology that it may put into question the party’s “conservative family values.” Japan is the only nation in the G7 that does not recognize same-sex unions.
Japan does not have a great track record when it comes to LGBT rights in general, especially trans rights. Back in January, the supreme court upheld a ruling requiring transgender people to undergo forced sterilization before they can have their gender changed on official documents.
The Human Rights Watch slammed this ruling as inhumane and an affront to international medical standards.
Pressure for the government to change, however, is mounting. Earlier this year thirteen gay couples filed a lawsuit against the country’s rejection of same-sex marriage on the basis that it’s unconstitutional, and in June Japan’s opposition parties submitted the country’s first ever same-sex marriage bill.
Let’s count this as a victory on the long road ahead.