Tokyo’s metropolitan government began issuing partnership certificates to same-sex couples who live and work in the capital on Tuesday, a move that’s been long-awaited in a country that still does not allow equal marriage.
The status does not carry the same rights as marriage, but allows LGBTQ partners to be treated as married couples for some public services in areas such as housing, health and welfare.
More than 200 smaller local authorities in Japan have already made moves to recognise same-sex partnerships since Tokyo’s Shibuya district pioneered the system in 2015.
As of Friday last week, 137 couples had applied for a certificate, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said.
Hopes are high among advocates that the introduction of the same-sex partnership certificates, which cover both Tokyo residents and commuters, will help fight anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Japan.
Miki and Katie are among those who have had no official proof of their relationship.
“My biggest fear has been that we would be treated as strangers in an emergency,” Miki told AFP.
Without a partnership certificate, the couple, who asked to be referred to by their first names, used to tuck a note inside their wallets with the other’s contact details.
“But these were insubstantial, and we felt official documents certified by the local government would be more effective,” Miki said.
“The more people make use of these partnership systems, the more our community will feel encouraged to tell family and friends about their relationships, without hiding their true selves”.
Recent years have seen Japan take small steps towards embracing sexual diversity.
More firms are now proclaiming support for same-sex marriage, and gay characters feature in TV shows.
A 2021 survey by public broadcaster NHK showed 57% of the public was in favour of gay marriage, versus 37% against.
But hurdles remain, with a court in Osaka ruling in June that the country’s failure to recognise same-sex unions was constitutional.
That marked a setback for campaigners in the wake of last year’s landmark verdict by a Sapporo court, which said the current situation violated Japan’s constitutionally guaranteed right to equality.
Prime minister Fumio Kishida has been cautious about the possibility of legislative changes that would recognise same-sex partnerships on a national level.
“Some politicians have made really negative comments, like that we are mentally ill,” Katie told AFP.
“But families are not always made up of a mother, a father and two kids. We should be more flexible,” she said.
The right to inheritance in the event of a partner’s death is still not guaranteed, while Katie’s lack of spousal visa status makes her ability to stay in Japan less stable.
“I feel that Japanese people’s level of understanding towards same-sex marriage is now high enough”, Miki said.
“All that’s left is for policymakers to be serious about it, and make changes”.