Small step by Tokyo district could be giant leap for LGBT equality

Tue Mar 3, 2015 1:19am EST
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Same-sex couples in Japan are awaiting the results of a debate in a Tokyo local assembly that may give them what their Western counterparts have long had: a chance to step out of the shadows.

The proposal by Tokyo's Shibuya ward to recognize same-sex partnerships from April may seem insignificant compared with the United States, where gay marriage is legal in all but 13 states. But it is the first such move in Japan, where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is all but invisible.

"It's as if the door has opened up a little. It may be much less than we expected, but the first bit is really hard," said Hitoshi Ohashi, who runs a gallery out of the Tokyo apartment he shares with his partner, author Bob Tobin.

"We must have the same guarantees and rights," added Ohashi, whose marriage to Tobin in California lacks legal standing in Japan. "For that, the best thing is to show people we are here."

In Japan, legally binding civil unions remain a distant dream for the LGBT community, with same-sex partners often unable to rent apartments. Being openly gay is taboo, and many sport fake wedding rings or enter marriages of convenience.

Which is why the February announcement on the proposed statute came as a surprise. Shibuya, one of Tokyo's 23 wards, is home to a trendy youth district as well as many embassies.

Mayor Toshitake Kuwahara, a proponent of diversity, said it was a natural step.

"We had no intention of showing off," Kuwahara told Reuters.   Continued...

Bob Tobin (R) and Hitoshi Ohashi (L), a same-sex couple, holding their hands look at a picture of them on the day they were married in San Francisco in 2014, during an interview with Reuters at their house in Tokyo February 25, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino