Tokyo ward to rec­og­nize same-sex mar­riages


Fu­mino Sugiyama will fi­nally be able to marry his girl­friend of four years. He couldn’t be­fore, be­cause same-sex mar­riages weren’t rec­og­nized in Ja­pan, and he is legally a woman.

With a land­mark vote Tues­day by the as­sem­bly of Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, the dis­trict fa­mous as a mecca for trendy young­sters be­came the first lo­cale in Ja­pan to rec­og­nize same-sex part­ner­ships as the “equiv­a­lent of a mar­riage,” guar­an­tee­ing the iden­ti­cal rights of mar­ried cou­ples, in­clud­ing hos­pi­tal vis­i­ta­tions and apart­ment rentals.

Sugiyama, who runs a cou­ple of restau­rants, said he wel­comed the move as a key step in start­ing a long-needed de­bate about LGBT is­sues in Ja­pan — a cul­ture that val­ues har­mony so much that be­ing dif­fer­ent can get down­right trau­matic.

“We are not out to change the world,” said Sugiyama, 33, who knew of his male iden­tity since he was in kinder­garten and had cried as a child be­cause he didn’t want to wear a skirt. “We sim­ply want the right to be with the per­son we love.”

The new or­di­nance ap­plies only to Shibuya, and it’s tech­ni­cally not legally bind­ing, though vi­o­la­tors will have their names posted on the ward’s web­site.

Shibuya — an area with a pop­u­la­tion of 217,000, in­clud­ing 9,000 for­eign­ers — is also plan­ning an ag­gres­sive ed­u­ca­tional cam­paign on LGBT is­sues.

Ja­panese con­ser­va­tives, in­clud­ing the pow­er­ful politi­cians of the rul­ing party, have been un­will­ing to back the ini­tia­tive, and protest ral­lies have popped up in Shibuya.

“A great so­cial ram­i­fi­ca­tion will be ex­pected from such a de­ci­sion,” Mari Sato, a rul­ing party ward leg­is­la­tor op­posed to the move, told the as­sem­bly ahead of Tues­day’s vote. “We need much more time to dis­cuss this is­sue.”

The vote passed, with the ma­jor­ity of the 34 ward’s leg­is­la­tors stand­ing up to show their ap­proval.

Many Ja­panese les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der peo­ple keep their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion se­cret for fear of a so­cial back­lash, so the num­ber of peo­ple who will take ad­van­tage of the change is un­clear. But Shibuya is ex­pect­ing an in­flux of gay and les­bian peo­ple.

The first cer­tifi­cates are ex­pected to be is­sued in July.

“Where ev­ery­one can live in


Shibuya ward Mayor Toshi­take Kuwa­hara says ac­cept­ing di­ver­sity matches the friendly, vi­va­cious char­ac­ter of the area — a bustling place known for bou­tiques, live mu­sic and a Sil­i­con Val­ley-like clus­ter of star­tups.

He says young “sex­ual mi­nori­ties” live in fear, wor­ry­ing about their fu­ture and grap­pling with self-doubt. “This is the re­al­ity,” Kuwa­hara told re­porters re­cently. “The pur­pose is to re­al­ize a so­ci­ety where ev­ery­one can live in hope.”

Koyuki Hi­gashi and Hiroko Ma­suhara, a rare vis­i­ble and vo­cal les­bian cou­ple in Ja­pan, emerged from the Shibuya ward of­fice Tues­day, hold­ing up a rain­bow ban­ner that said, “Thank you, Shibuya,” in English.

The cou­ple said they moved to Shibuya four months ago, just to ap­ply for a same-sex mar­riage cer­tifi­cate. They have been to­gether for three years, and held a sym­bolic wed­ding at Tokyo Dis­neySea two years ago.

“To marry the same sex is no dif­fer­ent from mar­ry­ing the op­po­site sex,” said Hi­gashi, 30, adding that she clutched Ma­suhara’s hand in joy the mo­ment the or­di­nance passed.

Sugiyama, who was also in Shibuya to cel­e­brate, ac­knowl­edged that the or­di­nance was just a be­gin­ning.

He said he strug­gled grow­ing up as a trans­gen­der in Ja­pan, and hated go­ing to an all-girls school. He never thought of him­self as fe­male, even when he was on the Ja­panese na­tional women’s fenc­ing team.

It was when he was vol­un­teer­ing, sweep­ing the streets, that he was be­friended by a Shibuya ward leg­is­la­tor. Pretty soon, LGBT peo­ple were flock­ing to the vol­un­teer project from all over Ja­pan.

That grad­u­ally started rais­ing aware­ness, re­called Sugiyama, who co-heads an LGBT ad­vo­cacy group called Tokyo Rain­bow Pride.

Sugiyama has had sex re­as­sign­ment surgery, but un­der Ja­panese law he is cat­e­go­rized as a fe­male. This means he would not be able to marry a woman un­der na­tional law, which does not rec­og­nize same-sex mar­riages. Now he can — in Shibuya. Still, Sugiyama, who said he plans to have chil­dren, turned tear­ful, re­flect­ing back on the years of pain, es­pe­cially those he knew who had killed them­selves, un­able to bear the suf­fer­ing. He was merely ask­ing so­ci­ety to ac­cept the LGBT life­style as an op­tion, he said.

“We are not try­ing to take away the right of het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples,” he said. “It is so­ci­ety that must change, not us.”

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