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BIPR | Steps Toward Marriage Equality Will Continue to Face Resistance in Japan
Global Risk Series

Steps Toward Marriage Equality Will Continue to Face Resistance in Japan

Jacob Wentz, M.A.I.R. 2024

Steps Toward Marriage Equality Will Continue to Face Resistance in Japan

A high court in Japan recently ruled that the country's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven (G7) nations that does not legally recognize same-sex marriage. The new ruling aligns with growing domestic support and increasing international pressure for marriage equality. It presents an opportunity for Japan to reinforce democratic values and strengthen ties with its G7 allies.

This decision and the larger push for marriage equality will heighten the issue's visibility in media and parliament, deepen ongoing debates, energize advocacy groups, and provoke stronger opposition.


The case is the first of its kind to reach one of Japan's eight high courts. Human rights organizations hailed the decision as a "significant step" towards achieving marriage equality. However, the decision does not overturn the current civil union law that describes marriage as between a man and a woman. For reform to materialize, the movement for marriage equality will need to overcome persisting obstacles across public, legal, and political sectors.

Ineffective Public Support

The path toward recognition of same-sex marriage remains obstructed by a populace that, while supportive in opinion, remains inactive in advocacy. Public support for same-sex marriage has notably increased in recent years. According to a 2023 survey, 72 percent of voters support legalizing same-sex marriage, with only 18 percent opposed. Even among supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who are seen as more conservative than the average populace, close to 60 percent favor legal recognition of same-sex unions.

However, this broad consensus hides a critical challenge: the lack of urgency among the public to translate these views into legislative pressure. Broader feelings of skepticism regarding the government's effectiveness in driving societal change contribute to this apathy, a phenomenon that is evident in record-low voting rates in the latest election cycles. The narrowed civic space in Japan, characterized by restrictions on press freedom and censorship, general discomfort with discussing sex and sexuality, and discrimination against the LGBTI community, further complicates active engagement and advocacy.

In addition, pushback from conservative groups, especially tied to Japan's religious right, heightens resistance to marriage equality. American Ambassador Rahm Emanuel has become a lightning rod for criticism, with opponents accusing him of undue interference in domestic affairs. His vocal support for LGBTI rights has spurred conservative media to evoke strong historical resentments, including a portrayal in a magazine depicting him in a manner reminiscent of colonial figures, a nod to Japan's post-World War II occupation by the Allied forces. LGBTI movements in Japan often seek international support to pressure local authorities for change, employing a strategy known as the boomerang effect. This international support will continue to provoke strong resistance from conservative factions within Japan, intensifying as further progress is made.

Toothless Legal Victories

A series of court rulings in favor of marriage equality has shown widespread legal recognition of the constitutional conflicts related to the issue, yet these rulings have failed to drive substantial legal reform. Since 2019, six cases have been brought forward at the district level as part of the Freedom of Marriage for All campaign. Five of them have identified Japan's same-sex marriage restrictions as unconstitutional to varying degrees—two courts declared the inequality outright unconstitutional, while three others characterized it as creating an "unconstitutional situation."

Despite these acknowledgments, the judiciary remains divided over whether the level of public support for LGBTI rights justifies establishing a legally binding same-sex marriage system. The judge in the most recent district case in Tokyo, for example, stated that granting same-sex couples the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples "requires serious consideration," citing that "public approval is not yet sufficient" to enforce such a change. These decisions, while symbolically progressive, signal that reform will come from more decisive intervention, whether through direct legislative action by policymakers or a conclusive ruling from the Supreme Court.

Political Opposition

The political landscape in Japan is dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, which holds a strong majority in the parliament with 258 of the 465 representatives. As a "big tent" party, the LDP encompasses a conservative and nationalist base influenced by far-right religious groups. This political dominance limits the ability of the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, which has just 99 representatives, to enact substantial legislative changes.

The LDP is the only major political party in Japan that maintains a cautious stance on same-sex marriage. In response to the recent high court ruling, conservative lawmakers within the LDP voiced vehement criticism. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida echoed this cautious approach, asserting that the government does not recognize the absence of same-sex marriage provisions as unconstitutional.

Moreover, the party has resisted even modest advancements in LGBTI rights. In the lead-up to hosting the G7 summit last year, the Japanese parliament passed its first law addressing anti-LGBTI discrimination. However, last-minute revisions by the LDP greatly weakened the legislation. Purportedly intended to "promote understanding" of LGBTI issues, the final version of the law fails to ban discrimination outright. Critics, including key human rights organizations, have condemned the law as largely symbolic and non-enforceable, criticizing its vague terminology such as "unfair discrimination." This resistance highlights the deeply ingrained conservative values within the political system, which will continue to obstruct the progress of marriage equality in Japan.


Despite incremental legal recognitions and growing public support, the deeply entrenched conservative values within Japan's political system will continue to obstruct significant progress toward marriage equality. Advancements will hinge on more impactful domestic and international pressures, and ultimately, on Japan's willingness to embrace progressive values in its political and social institutions.

Jacob Wentz is a Master of Arts in International Relations candidate at JHU-SAIS with a focus area in Governance, Politics, and Society. His research interests are democratic backsliding, the emergence of populist and nationalist movements, and the dynamics of media in political processes. Prior to his studies, Jacob served as a Fulbright fellow in Brussels.

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