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Ibaraki Becomes First Prefecture in Japan to Recognize Same-Sex Couples

SNA (Tokyo) – In a case of marked progress for Japan’s LGBT community, Ibaraki has become the first prefectural government to recognize same-sex couples through its issuance of “partnership declaration certificates,” effective today.

Ibaraki also passed an ordinance in March which banned discrimination against sexual minorities, reflecting the prefectural government’s plan made in November to promote diversity within the community. It is the second prefecture in the country after Tokyo to do so.

Similar systems have been put into place in smaller cities and wards, but never at the scale of an entire prefecture. So far, the 22 municipalities across the country that have instituted partnership certificates are Shibuya (Tokyo), Setagaya (Tokyo), Iga (Mie), Takarazuka (Hyogo), Naha (Okinawa), Sapporo (Hokkaido), Fukuoka (Fukuoka), Osaka (Osaka), Nakano (Tokyo), Oizumi (Gunma), Chiba (Chiba), Edogawa (Tokyo), Fuchu (Tokyo), Hirakata (Osaka), Kumamoto (Kumamoto), Odawara (Kanagawa), Sakai (Osaka), Soja (Okayama), Toshima (Tokyo), Yokosuka (Kanagawa), Kanuma (Tochigi), and Miyazaki (Miyazaki). In addition to these, the municipalities of Kitakyushu (Fukuoka) and Narashino (Chiba) plan on offering these certificates within the next year.

Ibaraki’s prefectural assembly is constituted mainly of members from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who have historically shown opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage. As such, many members in the assembly were reluctant to introduce the bill, stating that the time was not yet ripe for such a system.

In September 2017, a younger candidate, Kazuhiko Oigawa, now age 55, was elected governor of Ibaraki Prefecture in a close victory over six-term incumbent Masaru Hashimoto, now age 73. This new leadership, and the passage of the prefectural bill that has resulted from it, is a breath of fresh air for the LGBT community in Ibaraki with hopes of progress in the future.

Despite opposition, Oigawa went ahead with the decision after launching a study group in April on support for LGBT members of the community. In a report given to the governor by the study group, members urged him to introduce the plan across the prefecture as a first step towards acceptance of sexual minorities.

“Basic human rights might be infringed upon unless we do this as quickly as possible. We are setting the stage for sexual minorities to be able to live with confidence and pride,” said Oigawa when explaining his reasoning for moving forward with the bill.

In order for same-sex partners to receive recognition as a couple, both applicants must be at least twenty years of age and live in Ibaraki Prefecture. In addition to Japanese citizens, foreign residents of Ibaraki can apply, provided that they are registered residents of the prefecture and adhere to the same requirements. If a couple is able to apply for a certificate, they must each submit a document stating that the foundation of the relationship in question is built upon love and mutual trust for one another. Upon acceptance, both partners submit a “written oath” to the prefectural government, and they are then issued the document which recognizes them as a family, and equivalent to opposite-sex couples in a number of situations.

The certificate will allow same-sex couples to enjoy multiple benefits previously unavailable to them. Notably, a couple with this document are able to provide surgical consent for one another at the Ibaraki Prefectural Central Hospital, as well as rent public housing in Ibaraki together.

The certificate itself is not legally binding under national law, as it is only recognized on a local level exclusive to Ibaraki Prefecture and other municipalities which have issued similar partnership documents. Because of this, LGBT couples given this certificate are still unable to enjoy many of the rights associated with traditional marriages, such as custody of children, tax deductions, and spousal benefits. As such, the LGBT community and its supporters argue that their rights will not be truly recognized until national legislation is in place.

Those who are in favor of the prefectural bill believe that it will help bring a sense of legitimacy to same-sex couples and may be a catalyst needed for societal change in Japan. As the existence of sexual minorities across the country is made better known, understanding can be achieved and more might be done in the future to guarantee LGBT rights.

As Governor Oigawa put it: “This is a matter of human rights, and we must work swiftly in order to eliminate discrimination and prejudice.”

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