November 6, 2015 12:20 am JST
Same-sex recognition in Tokyo

A small but significant step toward equality

MARIKO TAI, Nikkei staff writer

Koyuki Higashi, right, and her partner Hiroko Masuhara leave the Shibuya Ward Office after receiving a certificate in Tokyo on Nov. 5.

TOKYO -- It might only be a symbolic step for Japan, but it was certainly an important and memorable day for 30-year-old Koyuki Higashi, a resident of the capital.

     "I would like to thank all who have worked together to issue the certificate," said Higashi, a lesbian, as she held up Japan's very first certificate for same-sex partnership issued by Shibuya Ward on Thursday.

     Gay partners above 20 years old, living in Shibuya and Setagaya Wards in Tokyo can now apply for and receive such certificates.

     These pieces of paper, although significant, are symbolic in nature. They do not give holders the same legal entitlements as married couples, but they do allow them the right to live together as partners. 

     Japan's younger generation is increasingly supportive of gay rights. According to U.S. think-tank Pew Research Center, 83% of Japanese aged between 18 and 29 said "homosexuality should be accepted" in 2013. The figure was higher than the 79% in the U.K., 70% in the U.S., 32% in China and 71% in South Korea.

     Dentsu Diversity Lab estimates that one out of 13 people in Japan would consider themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Dentsu also estimates that this number translates into 6 trillion yen ($49.4 million) in consumption.

     The business community has certainly been clued into the potential of this market and beyond. Ayaka Asami, a Dentsu researcher, said: "The time of targeting only LGBT for their purchasing power is already over in Japan. The purchasing power of heterosexuals who support the LGBT community is widening the market."

     Online business Lifenet Insurance Company, for one, announced on Wednesday an expansion of its services to include same-sex partners as policy beneficiaries.

     "We think this service is nothing progressive" said Daisuke Iwase, president and chief operating officer of the company. "Covering someone important equally is fundamental to life insurance" he added.

     LGBT users of SoftBank mobile can also register their partners for the company's family discount program.

     But while LGBT is increasingly accepted as the norm in Japan, society "is still far from truly accepting us both on national and individual level," said Naoto Hiraki, a transgender female. 

     There is no specific legal protection for gay people, or financial support for the surgery required by transgender people. Hiraki paid 1.2 million yen for her surgery to become a woman and to change her registered gender.

     In the case of Lifenet Insurance, a same sex partner will need to pay a 1.2 million yen in inheritance tax to receive a 10 million yen payout for a life insurance policy. A heterosexual partner does not need to pay any tax.

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