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Courts in Japan Support Same-Sex Marriage, But Lawmakers Are Reluctant to Legalize It. Here’s Why

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A district court in the southwestern Japanese city of Fukuoka ruled on Thursday that the East Asian country’s ban on same-sex marriage is “in a state of unconstitutionality.”

With the Fukuoka court’s decision, the rulings on five lawsuits brought by same-sex couples in 2019 on marriage equality have all been handed down: now three local courts have ruled that the ban is not constitutional, while two have said it is (though, while a Tokyo court upheld the ban, it added that the lack of a legal system for same-sex couples to become family members violates their human rights).

Those judgments, plus the overwhelming public opinion favoring same-sex unions, should put additional pressure on Japan’s lawmakers to end the ban and fully legislate marriage equality. Japan, which has fallen behind its peers in institutionalizing LGBT rights, has drawn flak for being the only G7 nation not to recognize same-sex partnerships.

Observers and marriage equality advocates often point to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as to why LGBT-specific legislation is languishing in the National Diet, Japan’s parliament. The ruling party has a reputation for leaning towards more conservative and patriarchal values. Kishida once asserted that disallowing same-sex marriage does not constitute “unjust discrimination” by the state.

Nevertheless, there has been some legislative movement. A bill two years in the making aimed at “promoting understanding” of LGBT individuals is scheduled to pass as early as June 16. Since introducing the bill, the Diet has been criticized for watering it down. Kazuyoshi Kawasaka, a lecturer at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf who specializes in Japan’s LGBT policy, says the bill is merely “performance for the international community.”

The greater pressure on the LDP comes from the religious right, which Kawasaka says is an extremely influential electoral interest group in Japan. The extent of religion’s hold over Japanese politics has come into greater focus since the 2022 assassination of Shinzo Abe by a man disgruntled over the late Prime Minister’s links to the Korea-based Unification Church. Reuters reported in 2022 that former followers of the Church had received orders to vote for LDP lawmakers who opposed LGBT rights and espoused traditional family values. The ultra-conservative Nippon Kaigi lobbying groups have also been vehemently against inclusive and progressive legislation. Religious right groups reportedly have even had congressional candidates submit written pledges to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in return for their support during elections.

Meanwhile, Japanese youth, a demographic that largely supports legalizing same-sex unions, have historically not voted during elections, says Kawasaka. “If religious groups have strong opinions about the LGBTQ rights, obviously, the LDP will prioritize their core support group,” he says.

“The conservative politicians in Japan often say they’re just speaking to tradition, and they kind of evoke this kind of conservatism or this kind of traditional family [values],” Chelsea Szendi Schieder, a gender studies and Japanese history professor at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, tells TIME. “But when I say religious influence, it really seems to be a matter of lobbying groups that have some strong bases.”

Parties other than the LDP, like the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. But with the majority of Diet seats under the LDP, any truly inclusive legislation is unlikely to be passed, as the religious right’s backing insulates the ruling party from any political fallout. So far, Schieder says, the LDP has “been able to ignore public opinion without paying for it.”

Still, Kanae Doi, Human Rights Watch’s Japan director, said the Fukuoka ruling is significant, as the growing number of courts ruling on the unconstitutionality of Japan’s same-sex marriage ban “make it harder for the Supreme Court to neglect.” Rulings can be appealed to the Supreme Court, which Doi says will ultimately decide whether or not the Diet will have to amend its laws.

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