Over Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride Weekend in late April, Ren married her partner of four years, Yae, on stage before hundreds of Japanese strangers. They were proud to tie the knot and be part of a milestone in Japan and East Asia, a region where same-sex partnerships have never previously been recognized.
While same-sex marriage has become increasingly common in the U.S. and Western Europe, it’s still rare in other parts of the world. There are signs of change in some parts of Asia. New Zealand legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 and Australia recognizes civil unions. Vietnam this year repealed a law banning same-sex marriages, though it does not officially recognize them.
No place in East Asia recognized same-sex marriages until late March, when Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya ward passed a local ordinance granting same-sex couples the right to partnership certificates.
The ceremony quickly followed for Ren and Yae, who are keeping their last names private. They are among several couples that have had ceremonies recently.
“We didn’t know this was going to happen,” Ren said. “It was very quick.”
While not legally binding, the certificates give gay couples rights to hospital visitation and shared rental agreements in the ward. Shibuya leaders expect businesses will honor the ordinance.
“Everyone has a right to become happy and they should be equal and everything, but maybe for some people in some way there had been some feeling that blocked their attitude to have more understanding towards these things,” said Toshitake Kuwahara, the Shibuya ward mayor who oversaw the passage of the measure.
While the Japanese don’t oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, change has come slowly for LGBT measures in Japan partly because of a cultural paradox. The Japanese value harmony so much that the LGBT community hasn’t faced overt discrimination.
“For better or for worse, Japan is a place that doesn’t have a lot of conflict,” said Fumino Sugiyama, the organizer of Pride Weekend. He’s a transgender man who is now able to marry his girlfriend.
“If there were a lot of hate crimes or people felt danger, or if you weren’t allowed to participate in government because you were LGBT, we would be like, ‘Let’s fight!’ But we’re not really rejected. As long are you don’t make a fuss, you can get by. That’s one of the big reasons it hasn’t been a bigger issue,” Sugiyama says.
But activists are raising their voices now. When polled by Kyodo News last year, 52 percent of Japanese said they opposed same-sex marriage rights.
“I think they were so bound to tradition in some ways, especially with the family and the way they register their family, and so any change to the family and that idea about the family is a challenge,” said Jeffrey Trambley, vice president of the Equal Marriage Alliance in Japan. The non-profit is pressing lawmakers to consider granting more rights to same-sex couples.
Now, the Shibuya ordinance is paving the way for other locales.
Tokyo’s Setagaya ward and the city of Yokohama are considering similar same-sex partnership policies. And a path toward marriage equality that starts in local areas — and widens — should be a familiar one for Americans. That the issue became politically viable at all is a big sign of change for Japan.
Chie Kobayashi contributed to this story.