TOKYO >> Tokyo launched a system Nov. 1 officially recognizing couples with at least one person in a sexual minority, giving them access to some of the same services available to married couples. The system recognizes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning partnerships.
A similar LGBTQ system was introduced in Japan in 2015 in Tokyo’s Shibuya and Setagaya wards. Since then more than 200 municipalities across the nation have adopted similar systems.
A couple’s story
“I’ve been looking forward to it,” said Soyoka Yamamoto, a 37-year-old office worker in Minato ward, as she looked up at the Tokyo metropolitan building in Shinjuku ward, which was illuminated in a rainbow of colors celebrating the LGBTQ community.
Yamamoto recalled how she was attracted to a girl while in elementary school and worried that she might be sick. She once had a relationship with a man, but her attraction to women persisted. Worried that she might never be happy, she said she contemplated suicide more than once.
Meeting her future partner, Yoriko, while in college gave her hope. Yoriko, 37, said she never tried to hide that she was attracted to both men and women. The couple later moved in together.
But Yamamoto says she has struggled with the reality that they are not considered a true couple by Japanese society. When Yamamoto collapsed at home and was rushed to a hospital, for example, paramedics told Yoriko to contact Yamamoto’s family.
So when Tokyo began accepting applications for a partnership certificate, the couple immediately applied. “I want society to become a place where people can say they like someone without hesitation and for that to be accepted,” Yamamoto said.
In Japan, LGBTQ couples are not entitled to the same legal benefits as heterosexual couples, such as inheritance, joint custody and spousal tax exemptions.
Tokyo’s partnership system, however, allows them to apply to move into metropolitan housing for families and receive medical information about their partner during an emergency, among other services.
On the first day of the program, 115 couples were issued certificates. According to a joint survey by Shibuya ward and the nonprofit Nijiiro Diversity, 224 municipalities had introduced similar systems as of July 1.
Tokyo’s introduction of an LGBTQ certification system means that more than 60% of Japanese now live in a city with such a system.
The private sector is also striving to be more inclusive. Cellphone company Docomo Inc. offers LGBTQ couples family discounts, while Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. has made a joint mortgage loan program available to them.
Iris Inc., a real estate firm in Shinjuku ward, said housing units introduced to LGBTQ customers have exceeded 10,000 this year, up from about 100 in 2016. There have been many cases of landlords refusing LGBTQ couples housing, the firm said. Company President Akihiro Suto said, “We can expect a large ripple effect.”
Meanwhile, it’s still rare for corporations to offer benefits to LGBTQ partnerships. A government survey found that fewer than 1% of companies grant congratulatory or condolence leave or family allowances to LGBTQ employees.
Now the Tokyo government allows LGBTQ employees to receive support allowances and nursing care leave. “We also want to encourage the private sector to understand gender diversity,” said a Tokyo government official.
Despite the progress, many LGBTQ people still feel isolated. In fiscal 2020, Yorisoi Hotline, a free advice hotline, received 112,000 LGBTQ-related calls concerning love, marriage, prejudice and discrimination.
Nearly half of those who used the service said they had no one to talk to in their daily lives.
“Isolation and distress can be a serious, life-threatening problem,” said the hotline’s director. “We hope that the expansion of the system will help create an environment where people can engage in dialogue with others.”