A Snag on the Way to Marriage Equality in Japan

Following WhatTheTrans’ earlier piece on same-sex marriage alternatives in Japan, a number of municipalities have either begun listing, or are considering listing, same-sex partners as common law spouses on locally maintained resident registries (details on this development can be read about in “In First, Gay Couple in Japan Wins Common Law Marriage Designation” by Jay Allen at Unseen Japan). While this opens up some new avenues as well as advances the cause of marriage equality in the country, it has apparently caused some rancor at the highest levels of government.

 Internal Affairs Minister Matsumoto Takeaki in a press briefing held on 9 July made it clear that while a municipality may list different kinds of information about residents in local registries, the information listed is generally to be treated for all intents and purposes as public affirmation of said information. That is, if a document lists you as being common law spouses, you would, in effect, be seen as such.

 However, Minister Matsumoto revealed that Omura in Nagasaki, the first city to allow same-sex couples to have their relationship listed as a common law marriage, do not in fact see it as such. Instead, it appears that it is merely something listed on the document without any actual legal effect beyond the city.

 What this means is that even if a couple are listed as common law spouses on official documents, it may not have any actual power, and does not necessarily allow individuals to receive the same services available to opposite sex common law spouses.

 The Ministry notified the city that this could cause confusion among recipients of the documents (i.e. government offices, insurance companies, etc.) who may be led to believe that a same-sex couple must legally be afforded the same accommodations as opposite-sex couples.

 While this does throw some water on the excitement around the idea of common law marriages for same sex couples, it isn’t to say the listing would be entirely worthless. For one, within a municipality, a common law spouse designation could still be used for different services, as with already existing partnership oath systems. In addition, there is no doubt an emotional boost for couples that comes from seeing you and your partner listed as spouses on official documents, regardless of its legal meaning.