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Japan's same-sex marriage ban 'unconstitutional'

March 14, 2024

A Japanese high court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was illegal. The court, however, did not award damages to couples affected by the ban.

The plaintiffs hold banners while standing in front of media members by the main entrance of a court in Tokyo
Thursday's ruling comes as lower Japanese courts across the country are split on the legality of a ban on same-sex marriageImage: Hiro Komae/AP Photo/picture alliance

A  Japan  high court ruled on Thursday that denying marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

"Enacting same-sex marriage does not seem to cause disadvantages or harmful effects," the court said.

The high court in Sapporo, a northern Japanese city, ruled that denying same-sex couples the same marriage benefits as heterosexual couples was a violation of citizens' fundamental right to have a family.  

What was the case?

Three same-sex couples in the prefecture had claimed for damages against the government — which the court stopped short of ordering.

"I thought the ruling might be a conservative one, but it ended up exceeding my expectations," said one of the plaintiffs, who did not disclose his name to reporters. "I couldn't help but cry."

The court called for urgent government action to address the lack of a law allowing same-sex marriage. Though other lower-level courts have ruled the ban was unconstitutional, the Sapporo high court's decision was first by an appeals court. 

The court, however, does not have the power to overturn the current marriage law, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Japan faces legal dilemma over same-sex marriage

The debate on the same-sex marriage ban has split lower courts. One district court called the ban constitutional, but others have said it is unconstitutional in varying degrees.

Fighting for LGBTQ+ rights across Asia

The plaintiffs are considering appealing to the Supreme Court to clarify the unconstitutionality of existing law, lawyer Tsunamori Fumiyasu said after the high court ruling.

Japan is the only G7 nation that does not provide legal protection for same-sex unions.

Government offices may continue to deny marriage status to same-sex couples unless the existing law is revised to include LGBTQ+ ​​​​​​couples.

ssa/sms (AFP, Reuters)