On Thursday, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward began acknowledging same-sex unions by issuing “partnership” certificates, with Setagaya’s mayor confirming they would also follow suit.

Amongst the first to have the certificate issued were Hiroko Masuhara and Koyuki Higashi, who registered their partnership in the hope that it would provide equal rights that weren’t previously afforded to them, in regard to hospital visits, tax and lease holding.

Higashi said, “I’m delighted to see that our minority group that is struggling to be accepted by society, is starting to be recognized in this way and be treated in an equal way.” (AFP)

Despite the widespread attention Shibuya Ward’s decision has generated, the certificates are not legally binding. Rather, they bring with them a symbolic meaning and a hope that landlords and hospitals will recognize them and provide equal treatment and opportunities to any couples, regardless of gender.

Whilst this may seem like quite an insignificant move compared to the US where gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, even a small breakthrough provides hope that other wards, and indeed cities, will follow Shibuya and Setagaya’s lead. Japan is a country where being openly gay is still met with a fair amount of resistance (at least administratively), and Higashi says “I hope that this will be a step forward not only for Tokyo but for the whole of Japan to become a more comfortable place to live in, because there are LGBTs nationwide” (Reuters). She also went on to add “I personally dream to be able to get married in Japan with Hiroko one day.” (AFP)

As previously reported by Weekender, there are those that believe this is only a minute step towards true equality. Akiko Shimizu, an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tokyo University, says that many members of Tokyo’s queer community find the new statute “disconcerting” because those same-sex partnerships still need to approved by the head of the ward before they can go on to be recognized officially. Shimizu summed up her thoughts in a Facebook post that stated “we must keep in mind what human rights violations this ‘step forward’ is coupled with. One right doesn’t make other wrongs go away.”

While Shibuya mayor Ken Hasebe (a vocal pro-LGBT rights advocate) congratulated the couple on their partnership, many others are a little more wary of what may follow. Reuters reported that “[t]he central government, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has said it needs to be ‘very careful’ when considering whether or not to make changes in the constitution allowing same-sex marriage.”

Image: Yoshikazu Tsuno / Getty, via Huffington Post

–Chris Zajko