Skip to main content

Lesbian activists Hiroko Masuhara, centre left, and her partner Koyuki Higashi, centre right, speak to the media with transgender activist Fumino Sugiyama, left, and gay activist Gon Matsunaka after Tokyo's Shibuya ward recognises same-sex partnerships, outside the Shibuya city hall in Tokyo in this photo taken by Kyodo March 31, 2015. A district assembly in Tokyo became the first in Japan on Tuesday to recognise same-sex partnerships, a major step forward for gay couples in a country where being openly gay remains taboo.KYODO/Reuters

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.

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."