In the first five months of 2019 alone, the number of Japanese municipalities with a “partnership system” recognizing same-sex relationships has doubled. While Japan’s national government has been very passive when it comes to tackling issues faced by its LGBT population, more and more municipal governments are making an effort to help improve the daily lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.
The lack of legal recognition for marriage or any other form of officially recognized partnership for same-sex couples in Japan has meant that many people have been denied access to relationship-based privileges and rights – an exclusion that does not only apply to those who are attracted to people of the same sex. Changing your legal gender is a burdensome challenge in Japan, demanding costly and very personal sacrifices that place it out of reach for many transgender people. As a result, many are left without legal recognition of their status. Consequently straight, pre-legal transition trans people and their partners are also impacted by the lack of recognition of same-sex relationships.
In February 2015, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward revealed its plan for a special partnership system. The system’s purpose is to officially recognize the relationships of same-sex couples in order to solve some of the issues they have to face in their daily lives. Such issues include, but are not limited to, the right to move into public housing facilities as a couple, hospital visitation rights, the right to make medical decisions for an unconscious partner and access to special partnership benefits given by employers.
Shibuya’s partnership certificate is recognized by official institutions within the municipality and private companies are encouraged to recognize the couple’s relationship status just the same as they do with straight, married couples.
It took time for the partnership system to gain momentum, but the pace of adoption has grown tremendously
The idea of the system sparked brief debates regarding its constitutionality and sent a rippling effect through Japan’s municipal assemblies. Assembly members who had previously brought up the topic in the neighboring Setagaya Ward demanded that their mayor take similar actions before the ward lost its reputation for leading the vanguard of progressive policies. Their arguments worked; in July the mayor announced that Setagaya would join Shibuya and both municipalities began distributing their partnership certificates on November 5th of the same year.
Within days of Shibuya revealing its planned system, an assembly member in Okinawa’s capital, Naha City, raised the topic. The city’s chief of general affairs agreed that it would be good idea to watch how other municipalities handled the subject and to proactively attempt to solve the issues of LGBT+ people. While LGBT-related issues had rarely been mentioned in Naha’s assembly prior to this, they have since become a regular topic. Naha became the fifth municipality in Japan to adopt the system; the city has also adopted various other LGBT-friendly policies.
While it took some time for the spread of the system to really gain momentum, the pace at which it is being adopted has grown tremendously over time. Within the first half of 2019, the total number of municipalities with a partnership system has grown from 9 to 20 so far, with the number set to grow to 22 with the planned start of systems in Miyazaki City and Kanuma City in June.
Skeptics point to the relatively low number of couples who have applied for partnership documents – but these numbers require context
With the exception of Shibuya Ward, Toshima Ward and Soja City, all three of which enacted ordinances, other municipalities have so far adopted their partnership systems in the form of an “administrative guideline”, known in Japanese as a ‘要綱’ (yōkō). One of the main differences between ordinances and guidelines is the way in which they are adopted. While an ordinance needs to be voted on by assembly members, a guideline can be issued by individual mayors and doesn’t necessarily need the approval of the assembly.
This is not to say that mayors can just adopt guidelines whenever they please. In January, Hida City’s mayor announced on Facebook that the city would be among the many municipalities that would start partnership systems on April 1st of 2019. His assembly members, however, responded to this surprise move by their mayor by arguing that more time was needed before a partnership system could be implemented, and submitting a resolution that successfully postponed the start of the system. Nonetheless, successfully adopting an ordinance is a lot more difficult in political terms than issuing a guideline, making it all the more impressive that Toshima Ward’s ordinance was adopted unanimously on the 22nd of March 2019.
According to Nijiiro Diversity’s latest research, the number of couples who have acquired a partnership document stood at 426 as of April 17th. Skeptics might call this a low number and criticism has been leveled at the lack of actual legal power offered by the partnership documents; private companies are not obliged to co-operate, and the documents are generally only recognized within their municipality. It’s important, however, to contextualize these numbers. A lot of partnership systems demand that both partners already live within the municipality, potentially creating a Catch-22 situation as many people apply for the partnership certificates precisely because they want to be able to rent an apartment together. To solve this issue, local governments are now making it so that people can apply more easily even if they don’t live within the municipality yet, as long as they make a promise that they will move there. Another hurdle that’s a bit more difficult to solve is that obtaining a certificate and actually using it might mean that an individual has to come out to friends, family or coworkers – no problem for some couples, but a sacrifice others might not be willing or able to make.
It is likely only a matter of time until the partnership policy is elevated from municipalities to a prefectural level
Ultimately, the policy’s effectiveness cannot be measured only by looking at the number of people actively applying for certificates. By adopting the policy, municipalities show their LGBT+ citizens that they care about them. It stirs up much-needed discussion and creates awareness among both politicians and their constituents. Surveys of recipients of the certificate have shown that it helped them in the process of coming out to friends and family as well as helping them in other aspects of their daily lives. Most important of all, however, is the fact that many of the people pushing for the policy are members of the LGBT+ community themselves – making this an important political win for a marginalized minority.
LGBT+ organizations have produced petitions and campaigned for the introduction of the policy in various places across Japan. One such organization, Rainbow Saitama, is planning to deliver its petition to the administrations of all 63 villages, towns and cities within Saitama Prefecture as well as the prefecture’s governor. Japan’s unified local elections in April also saw various candidates campaigning on the promise of working towards the adoption of a partnership system. One such politician is Fuchigami Ayako, a transgender woman elected to Hokkaido Prefecture’s assembly on April 7th, who campaigns for prefecture-wide adoption of a partnership system. With the governor of Ibaraki Prefecture also having expressed his support, it is likely to be only a matter of time until the partnership policy takes its next step and gets elevated to the prefectural level.
Within its short existence, the partnership system has already helped many Japanese LGBT people – and the future prospects for the system look bright.As adoption and support for the partnership system rises beyond local assemblies, it will become increasingly difficult for the national government to keep marriage equality and LGBT rights off the political agenda.
Emily Boon is a Masters student at Leiden University, currently majoring in Asian Studies and International Relations. She has a BA in Japanese Studies and was formerly an intern at the LeidenAsiaCentre. Having written her bachelor's thesis on the spread of so-called "partnership systems", Emily's research interests center primarily around local politics and LGBTQ+ politics