A major Tokyo municipality started on Thursday issuing “partnership” certificates to same-sex couples, as Japan takes gradual steps towards greater tolerance for sexual minority groups.

Japanese gay couple Hiroko Masuhara (R) and Koyuki Higashi display a certificate of “partnership,” issued by the Shibuya Ward office in Tokyo, on Thursday

Hiroko Masuhara, 37, and Koyuki Higashi, 30, registered their “partnership” with Shibuya ward, a major Tokyo district that is home to embassies, international businesses and trendy fashion houses.

“As a first step, I hope this will spread across Japan,” said Higashi, a stage actress by profession, amid intense media coverage in front of the Shibuya ward office.

The certificates are not legally binding and carry only symbolic significance since the Japanese constitution identifies marriage as a union based on mutual consent of the parties from “both sexes”.

 But the official recognition of the same-sex unions is aimed at encouraging hospitals and landlords to accept the certificate to try to ensure couples receive similar treatment to people who are legally married.

Gradual acceptance

The mayor of nearby Setagaya district said it would also start issuing similar certificates later Thursday.

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 loved ones in hospitals or may be refused tenancy because their relationship is not regarded as in line with social norms.

“Heterosexual couples and same-sex couples are really very much the same. It is unfortunate that there are many things that cannot be done and cannot be recognised because the number [of gay couples] is small,” Higashi said.

“I hope the day will come soon when there will be equality in society,” she added.

The certificate issuance came amid other signs of a gradual acceptance of the rights of same-sex couples by Japanese businesses.

Lifenet Insurance said Wednesday it had expanded its services to recognise same-sex partners as beneficiaries of life insurance contracts.

Mobile phone carriers NTT DoCoMo and KDDI have also said in recent months that they would expand family discount services to cover gay partners.

SoftBank, another major mobile carrier, has offered family discounts to those who shared addresses, regardless of their genders.

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