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TOKYO (Reuters) - A district assembly in Tokyo became the first in Japan on Tuesday to recognize same-sex partnerships, a major step forward for gay couples in a country where being openly gay remains taboo.
The vote by Tokyo's Shibuya ward may seem insignificant compared to the United States, where gay marriage is legal in all but 13 states, but just proposing the statute set off an unprecedented discussion over equality, and is likely to pave the way for similar measures elsewhere in Japan.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has been all but invisible in Japan, and legally binding civil unions are still a distant dream, with same-sex partners often unable to rent apartments.
Cheers arose from a crowd gathered outside the Shibuya city hall after the measure passed by a hefty majority, and activists held up a rainbow banner saying "Thank you Shibuya."
"It's not that we want to achieve something big, all we want is to be able to live with the people we love," said transgender activist Fumino Sugiyama.
Under the new statute, which takes effect on April 1, Shibuya - one of Tokyo's 23 wards and home to a trendy youth district as well as many embassies - will issue paperwork recognizing same-sex partnerships, based on a number of conditions. This recognition should allow couples to rent apartments and visit each other in hospital.
Debate flared on social media as soon as the bill was proposed, with younger people generally in favor. Asked about it in parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said they needed to be "very careful" when considering whether or not to make changes in the constitution to recognize same-sex marriage.
Some within the LGBT community have also been wary of the statute, saying that it was being used politically to burnish Tokyo's image overseas, but most hailed it. Two other Tokyo wards and the city of Yokohama are considering similar steps.
"I think for gay people, this is really a step forward," said Bob Tobin, a Tokyo resident and author whose U.S. marriage to his Japanese partner lacks legal standing in Japan.
"Hopefully all of Japan will take notice and ... I hope that other prefectures and cities follow suit."
Additional reporting by Olivier Fabre; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore