TOKYO - A Tokyo district announced Thursday that it plans to issue "partnership" certificates to gay couples, becoming the first Japanese municipality to recognise same sex units - albeit only symbolically.
The Shibuya district - a crowded business hub that hosts many international firms and embassies, along with trendy fashion houses, cafes and schools - said it planned to draft an ordinance designed to foster diversity and equality.
"We have decided to issue the 'partnership certificate' as part of our drive to create a society that respects people regarded as a sexual minority," Shibuya mayor Toshitake Kuwahara told a press conference.
The semi-autonomous locality, often translated as "ward" in English, has 217,000 residents, including nearly 10,000 foreigners.
The municipality has heard from local residents and workers that gay couples often have difficulty renting apartments and are stopped by hospitals from visiting loved ones because they do not have officially recognised family relationships, said a Shibuya official in charge of drafting the legislation.
"We will call on local bodies like businesses and hospitals to honour the wishes of these couples," he told AFP.
The certificate will only carry symbolic significance, as the Japanese constitution identifies marriage as a union based on mutual consent of the parties from "both sexes."
"The true effectiveness of the planned certificate remains uncertain. We hope our efforts will shed further light on various issues that individuals in the (gay) community face," the official said.
Gay couples have previously sought to get around Japan's conservative social arrangements by one partner adopting the other.
This means they become officially part of the same family, and are accorded the same rights as other family members.
While Japan has little in the way of official protection for gay people, it is seen as a reasonably tolerant society, and outright hostility is rare.