Last week, the institution of marriage had its media moment in Japan. It began with the possibility of change: broadcasters and the national dailies reported that the Supreme Court will re-examine two sections of the civil code. One prohibits married couples from using different surnames and a second prevents women from remarrying within six months of a divorce.
The fact that the country’s highest court had decided to take up the issues after being silent for decades suggested to observers that revisions were imminent. A day later, during a parliamentary debate, prime minister Shinzo Abe touched on the subject of marriage and seemed to be favouring the status quo. Standing at the lectern in the Upper House, Abe explained that “careful consideration” was needed for any discussions about legalising same-sex marriage. It would also require a constitutional rewording: article 24 specifies that marriage involves the “mutual consent of both sexes”.
There’s been a lot of talk in Japan lately about the need for constitutional revisions to ensure equal rights for women and so-called sexual minorities. Yet voters haven’t exactly been agitating for change.
Surveys in recent years have suggested that the public remains hopelessly divided over how to define marriage – and family. A poll last year conducted by the Nihon Yoron Chosa-kai, a media-industry organisation, found that 52.4 per cent oppose same-sex marriages, while 42.3 per cent support it. The biggest support was from respondents in their twenties and thirties, while the strongest opposition was among those aged 60 and older. Two years ago, a Cabinet Office survey found that more Japanese were against married couples keeping separate family names than were for it.
Conservative legislators say their hands are tied by the lack of consensus. That was their reason for deciding nearly a decade ago to reject the Justice Ministry’s recommendations for legal changes: the same ones that the Supreme Court is expected to rule on in the coming weeks.
The past week’s political and philosophical back-and-forth has played out on a national and local scale. On the same day that the prime minister was defending conservative values, Fumiko Hayashi, the mayor of Yokohama, was challenging them. The leader of Japan’s second-largest city threw her support behind a draft ordinance by a ward office (a bit like the town hall) in central Tokyo to recognise same-sex relationships. If the Shibuya Ward assembly approves the plan in the coming weeks, it would be the first in Japan to do so. While not legalising gay marriage, the ward’s move to issue certificates would effectively grant marriage benefits to gay couples living within its borders. Yokohama is now exploring similar steps.
This hardly qualifies as big change. But for once it is refreshing to see a national debate about changing social norms that’s being shaped at the grass-roots level by local politicians, rather than in a top-down fashion.
Kenji Hall is Monocle's Asia editor at large.