Chizuka Oe and Yoko Ogawa, who have been together for more than 20 years, attempted on Jan. 17 to register to marry. They received a “partnership” certificate last year, but officials at a local government office rejected the registration on the grounds that it is “unlawful for a female couple” to wed.
So Oe and Ogawa joined 12 other same-sex couples who sued the Japanese government Thursday. Same-sex marriage is illegal in the country, and the couples say they are being denied the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. The lawsuit asks for 1 million yen, or about $9,000, per person, the AFP reported.
Oe and Ogawa say they never had much interest in formalizing their union, but they wanted to register to advance the fight for marriage equality.
“With all that we have done so far, I felt that if we did not speak up, then the country would not change,” Oe said.
Oe and Ogawa spoke with HuffPost Japan about the lawsuit, the dual challenges female sexual minorities face, and why they think Japan’s entire institution of marriage needs an overhaul. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why did you decide to take legal action?
Ogawa: The truth is, from the start we never really wanted to get married all that much. Not all heterosexual couples want to get married, right? It was just like that.
But currently, same-sex couples cannot even stand at the starting line for marriage, and it puts them in an extremely unfair position. We want all people to be able to make their own choices, whether they choose the institution of marriage or not, and for all people to be able to stand at that starting line.
Lesbians are already at a disadvantage in society simply because they are women. When you add being homosexual on top of that, it becomes quite a heavy burden. Chizuka Oe
Oe: I also feel that the current institution of marriage is unfair and has problems, and I question whether or not I would have gotten married if I were heterosexual. In order to take legal action, I had to come to terms with that unease.
The major push came from the idea that same-sex marriage is an important first step toward acquiring rights. We have been involved with LGBTQ activism for many years and so, to sexual minorities, universal access to marriage is a very understandable starting point for acquiring rights. That is what gave me the resolve to take legal action.
Lesbians are already at a disadvantage in society simply because they are women. When you add being homosexual on top of that, it becomes quite a heavy burden. Twenty years ago, it required a lot more resolve for a lesbian to be open than it does today. I think that times are changing.
Ogawa: I feel that especially among the younger generation, there are more and more people who don’t want to hide anything from those who are close to them and from those with whom they have built relationships of mutual trust. Coming out carries risk, but there is also the idea that being open makes school and work easier. I feel like things have really changed these past 10 years. A big part of that has been the spread of information about sexual minorities.
However, there are still people who will absolutely not come out and are happy just to live with the person they like. I think they feel that they might need to set up a barrier like that in order to have a stable life.
Even among heterosexuals, I think it is rare for a person to suddenly start talking about their love life when they first meet somebody. However, depending on whether the person they like is of the same gender or the opposite gender, I feel like the ease in talking about it is completely different.
Oe: There are a lot of people who like the opposite sex, but there are also people who like the same sex, and there are also people who like both. Until that idea becomes commonly accepted by society, I believe it will be tough for everybody to be open about it.
You’ve expressed doubts about whether the current institution of marriage provides true equality for both sexes. Does it?
Oe: The Constitution of Japan put in place after World War II says that marriage is not to be determined by families, but rather via an agreement between the two individuals themselves. It also says that husband and wife must have equal rights. But I wonder if they truly are equal.
Weddings are always presented as “Family X” and “Family Y.” I also have concerns about the use of the words “yome” (wife/bride) and “shujin” (husband/head of household). The age at which a person is allowed to marry is 16 for women and 18 for men. There is also the policy that prohibits women from remarrying within 100 days of a previous marriage ending, and this policy does not apply to men. Technically the family name can be chosen, but an overwhelming number of couples use the man’s family name, and a husband and wife are not allowed to each retain their own family name when they get married. Looking at details like this, I do not see gender equality.
Families are diverse, and there is a wide range of family structures, such as single-parent households. But only when same-sex marriage comes into play are there outcries about it destroying the structure of the family. It is beyond absurd. Oe
Ogawa: I also feel like there are various problems with the institution of marriage and the family register system. For example, Oe’s father passed away, but in order to submit a marriage registration we needed an official copy of the family register, and the person listed as the head of the family on the family register was her deceased father.
Oe: When I was told that my father was the head of the family on the family register, even after he died, I was shocked. Head of the family even after death? What does that even mean?
Ogawa: In my case, my father moved after my mother died, and because he changed his legal address without telling me, there was no official copy of the family register where I thought it would be. I had to search through certificates of residence to find the legal address.
Even among heterosexual couples, there are people who have problems with the family registry system or the institution of marriage and decide not to get married, and other people choose options like common law marriage. If the world changes so that marriage is accepted regardless of gender, then maybe the way that people think will change as well.
Oe: There is a hope now that the entry of same-sex couples can disrupt the entire institution of marriage.
There are people who oppose same-sex marriage based on the reasoning that it would destroy the traditional family structure.
Oe: Nowadays, there are countless family structures. We have reached a point where it is no longer clear what “traditional family” even means. With the current importance given to diversity among individuals, I feel that diversity among families needs to be regarded the same way.
To the people opposed to same-sex marriage, I want to ask, “Who exactly does it bother?” Among heterosexuals, the people who don’t want to get married don’t get married, and other people choose options like common law marriage. Among homosexuals, the people who don’t want to get married don’t have to, and the people who hold onto traditional family values can simply make their own families.
What we have a problem with is the idea that homosexuals do not even have a choice. Families are diverse, and there is a wide range of family structures, such as single-parent households. But only when same-sex marriage comes into play are there outcries about it destroying the structure of the family. It is beyond absurd.
What does family mean to you?
Ogawa: Well, there are a lot of facets to it, but I think that a companion you can live with for your entire life, in a relationship founded on trust and respect, is probably family. Oe is like a comrade in arms to me.
Oe: I suppose it is a relationship where you can cherish your partner, having a recognition that they are at all times as important as you.
I do not believe that making same-sex marriage a reality will be easy. However, looking at countries where same-sex marriage now occurs, it seems like litigation is an inevitable part of that process.
Ogawa: I think there is a long road ahead, but I fully believe that in the future, people will look back and say, “Things were once like that, huh?”