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Tokyo moves to allow same-sex partnerships, but not as legal marriage

People march in the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade in the city's Shibuya district in May 2017. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)
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TOKYO — The Tokyo metropolitan government on Wednesday adopted legislation recognizing same-sex partnerships, which will extend some rights that apply to married heterosexual couples but falls short of allowing same-sex unions as legal marriages.

Tokyo is the ninth of Japan’s 47 prefectures to make the change. The recognition has been slow to be adopted nationwide, amid very gradual cultural acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Japan and throughout Asia.

Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven largest economies not to recognize same-sex marriages. Taiwan is the only Asian nation or territory to legalize them.

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Still, the policy change is noteworthy in Japan’s largest prefecture, which has 14 million residents and is home to the nation’s capital. It also reflects changing attitudes toward the LGBT community. A poll by the Asahi newspaper last year found that 65 percent of voters nationwide supported same-sex marriage, up from 41 percent in 2015.

Sixteen of 62 municipalities within Tokyo had already adopted the change, with the Shibuya district in 2015 becoming the first. The policy will now apply across the capital.

Activists called it a welcome first step, and noted that there is still a long way to go until they can enjoy rights equal to those of heterosexual married couples.

“I feel that my identity is finally being recognized after 40 years,” said Fumino Sugiyama, a transgender activist and co-chair of Tokyo Rainbow Pride who serves as Shibuya’s LGBT adviser.

The change means that beginning in November, same-sex couples who register their partnership with their local government will have certain rights previously denied to them, including living in public housing together and visiting a partner in the hospital. They can register their partnership online without visiting an office, to remain anonymous, and also list their children in their registration.

These rights will now apply to partnerships of people 18 years and older, and at least one person must be living in Tokyo or commuting there for work or school.

Social attitudes have kept many in Japan’s LGBT community largely invisible, fearing to come out to their loved ones or employers. Many face discriminatory comments at work, surveys show.

“There will be more of a visibility in numbers, and that hopefully will influence policy. Equality is marriage. Not this. But it’s a step,” said Olivier Fabre of Pride House Tokyo Legacy, which advocates for LGBT equality.

Last year, the Japanese national legislature declined to pass a law protecting LGBT people from discrimination, which advocates had hoped would come in time for the Tokyo Olympics, whose theme centered on diversity and inclusion.

In an interview Wednesday, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said she hopes the metropolitan government’s decision lays the groundwork for lasting change. She said its efforts during the Games last year helped accelerate the message for greater diversity in the city.

“I think the Tokyo Olympics pushed forward and promoted the idea of diversity and inclusion, both systematically, legally, and within the feelings of the people,” she said.

Kan, who goes by the single-word name and was featured in the 2019 Netflix series “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan,” married his boyfriend in London last year because they could not get married in Japan.

“We are waiting every day for a day when we can both live in Japan. … There are many like us who want to live in Japan, but many didn’t have the option and had to leave,” said Kan, who was visiting Tokyo with his husband in time for the change.

“I am really happy that the partnership system will be realized. Even if we ourselves think of ourselves as family, it’s important [for] the system and the world around us to acknowledge that as well,” he said.