With an increasing number of countries recognizing same-sex marriage, couples in Japan are going public about their relationships and holding wedding ceremonies. Although the unions lack legal standing, couples hope they will spur people to think about the different forms marriage can take.
“We were so happy to be able to wear wedding dresses together,” Higashi said.
Higashi is a former member of the Takarazuka Revue who now works as a lecturer, among other things. Hiroko, who asked to only be identified by her first name, works for an educational information technology company. The two met in 2011 and both said there was a time when they struggled with their lesbian identities and how to relate to their families.
They decided to get married to symbolize having found a partner to navigate through life with. The ceremony was reported in magazines and other media.
“Same-sex couples like us are like invisible people in Japan,” Hiroko said, adding that they hoped going public and holding the ceremony “would help change circumstances that are difficult to live in.”
Kazuyuki Minami, 36, and Masafumi Yoshida, 35, both lawyers, held a wedding ceremony last year and in January opened a legal office together in Osaka.
“People close to us have been understanding, but a lot of [gay or lesbian] people are restraining themselves and feel that they can’t speak out,” they said.
“It seems only natural, but we want to tell people there is a way to be happy with the person you love.”
There is a growing movement overseas to legally recognize same-sex marriage. The Netherlands in 2001 became the first nation to do so, and it has been followed by Belgium, Canada and other countries. France legalized same-sex marriage in April.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled recently that aspects of a federal law limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman were unconstitutional, but many U.S. states still do not recognize same-sex marriage and opposition remains strong.
Japanese law defines marriage as between a man and a woman and does not give legal recognition to same-sex unions. Awareness of the issue is low, and it is not widely discussed.
In a Dentsu Innovation Institute survey of 70,000 people aged 20 or older on being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), 5.2 percent acknowledged belonging to such categories.
In another survey of 500 LGBT people, 65 percent said they had not told anyone about this aspect of themselves.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. gives same-sex couples who have lived together for at least one year the same rights to benefits as male-female couples.
The company in 2009 began holding employment sessions for LGBT students expected to graduate from universities in Japan and has in-house programs to increase understanding of LGBT issues.
“Just like with nationality or gender, we believe the success of the company is tied to creating an environment where all types of people can work comfortably,” said Akiko Ueda, who supports LGBT networks in her management position in Goldman’s president’s office.
Yoko Oya, a senior researcher at Dentsu Innovation Institute, said, “Society’s values are diversifying, so I hope we will begin to have a wider discussion on the rights and lifestyles of homosexuals and other sexual minorities.”