Tokyo district OKs Japan's first same-sex partner certificates

TOKYO - A Tokyo council voted on Tuesday to issue "partnership" certificates to gay couples, the first such recognition of same-sex unions in Japan.

Assembly members in Shibuya district - a business and shopping hub that is home to international firms and embassies - passed an ordinance that will allow their officials to start giving out the certificate as early as this summer.

"I'm happy," said Koyuki Higashi, a gay rights campaigner who held a wedding ceremony with her female partner at Tokyo Disney Resort in 2013.

"I hope this movement will be spread across Japan and discussions on same-sex marriages will accelerate," said Higashi, who has been living in Shibuya for four months, adding she and her partner Hiroko Masuhara plan to get a certificate.

"I hope I can marry Hiroko in Japan." The certificate will carry only symbolic significance, since the Japanese constitution identifies marriage as a union based on mutual consent of the parties from "both sexes".

Shibuya officials say they will encourage hospitals and landlords to accept the certificate to try to ensure same-sex couples receive similar treatment to people who are married.

While Japan is largely tolerant of homosexuality, there is no specific legal protection for gay people, who complain that they may be prevented from visiting sick loved ones in hospitals or may be refused a tenancy because their relationship is not recognised.

The ordinance won support from a majority of assembly members, but not from those belonging to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who coincidentally lives in Shibuya.

Opponents have voiced concerns over the last few weeks about the move, with the "Network Pushing for Normalisation of Education" warning that "creating such a framework could further exacerbate Japan's falling birthrate".

Shibuya, famous globally for its "scramble crossing", is a liberal-leaning part of Tokyo and home to trendy cafes, bars and nightlife popular with younger people.

The semi-autonomous locality, often translated as "ward" in English, has 217,000 residents, including nearly 10,000 foreigners, one of the highest proportions in Japan.

Next-door Setagaya ward is also paving the way for recognising same-sex couples, studying how it might offer certificates.