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A court in Japan says the ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Most advanced democracies have legalized same-sex marriage in recent years. In the G-7 group of leading economies, Canada went first in 2005. The United States followed years later. And today, there is just one holdout - Japan, where an effort to establish same-sex marriage has failed. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A district court in Osaka dismissed a lawsuit brought by three same-sex couples. They claim that by not allowing them to marry, Japan's system discriminates against them, and that violates the constitution. The court argued that the constitution only guarantees the rights of heterosexual couples. Plaintiff Yuki Kawada told reporters he's not satisfied.

YUKI KAWADA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "The court hasn't showed us any understanding," he said. "They haven't listened at all to what we've said. We will keep saying that we want to lead normal lives."

The court's ruling is not the end of the story - the plaintiffs plan to appeal - but it's also not the first ruling. Last year, a court in the city of Sapporo ruled that by not recognizing same-sex marriage, Japan's civil law and family registration law violate the constitution's guarantee of equality before the law. LGBTQ rights advocates hailed that verdict as a milestone.

In Japan, same-sex couples are not entitled to the same benefits as heterosexual couples, such as inheritance rights, joint custody of children and tax benefits. There has been some loosening at the grassroots. Many local governments now offer certificates recognizing same-sex unions. The documents aren't legally binding, but couples can use them to access benefits such as public housing. But plaintiff Akiyoshi Tanaka says getting Japan's parliament to legalize same-sex marriage is taking way too long.

AKIYOSHI TANAKA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "The legislature is so slow that we wanted to get a judicial ruling to support us," he said. "But the verdict gives us no consideration at all. I think they were trying to avoid making a judicial ruling."

The Osaka court added in its verdict that Japan could someday work out a new system to ensure equal rights for same-sex couples. But for now, it concluded, there hasn't been enough public discussion of what that system would look like.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAN THE MAN'S "TRAVELLERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.