TOKYO — Ikuo Sato stood in front of a Tokyo court in April and told the world he was gay.
To a packed room, he described the anxiety he had felt as a young man, struggling to express his sexuality in Japan’s restrictive society. If the law is changed to allow same-sex marriage, he said, perhaps “we’ll make a society where the next generation doesn’t have to feel that way.”
Somewhere in the courtroom, his partner sat silently watching, hoping to go unnoticed. His family and co-workers do not know he is gay, and he hopes — at least for now — to keep it that way, fearing discrimination in his workplace.
The couple’s story epitomizes the contradictions that shape the lives of gay people across Japan.
In many ways, there has been dramatic change. Lawsuits filed this year by Mr. Sato, his partner and five other couples seeking recognition of same-sex marriage are the first of their kind in Japan. Public support for same-sex marriage has surged in the last few years, making it seem suddenly within reach. Local governments are increasingly recognizing same-sex partnerships, and even Japan’s famously rigid companies have begun coming out in favor of them.
Yet in other ways, the gains remain abstract. Gay people face overwhelming pressure to conform to the silent, stifling norms of a society in which many parents and workers are still uncomfortable with the idea of their own children and colleagues being gay. And the conservative politicians who run the country and extol its sometimes inflexible culture refuse to touch the issue.
“The Japanese people think we should recognize same-sex marriage,” said Taiga Ishikawa, who in July became the first openly gay man elected to the country’s Parliament. But, he said, some politicians in the governing party “still have outdated views on this,” adding that there is a mistaken belief “that same-sex relationships are a ‘hobby’ or will add to the declining birthrate.”
A recent poll reflected the dichotomy. The survey, by the advertising giant Dentsu, found that more than half of gay men and lesbians in Japan were concerned about coming out. Yet it also showed that almost 80 percent of people 60 and under now support same-sex marriage.
That widespread backing, a jump of 20 or more points in just a few years, comes as Japan has caught up with patterns in other developed countries and has experienced what many describe as a “boom” in L.G.B.T. awareness.
Advocates see the groundswell in support as an opening.
Haru Ono, an illustrator and rights activist, and her partner, Asami Nishikawa, who are in their 40s and live together in a Tokyo suburb, have long thought it was unfair that they could not marry. But they kept their activism quiet, fearing that making their relationship public could expose their children — who are now grown — to bullying at school.
年过四十的插画家、维权人士小野春(Haru Ono)和她的伴侣西川麻实(Asami Nishikawa)住在东京郊区，她们一直认为自己不能结婚是不公平的。但她们对这些主张保持沉默，因为担心如果公开关系会导致她们的孩子——现已成人——在学校受到欺凌。
A run-in with a hospital changed all that. When Ms. Nishikawa brought one of Ms. Ono’s children in for a procedure, the staff refused to allow her to check the boy in, saying that he needed to be accompanied by a member of his “real family.”
The experience “haunted me for a long time,” Ms. Ono said. Her anxiety only grew when she learned she had breast cancer and began to fear that her partner might not be allowed to be with her as she underwent treatment.
For years, Ms. Ono said, lawyers had told the couple that “the time wasn’t right” to sue the government for the right to marry. Then, suddenly, it was. In February, they joined the 12 other couples across Japan in filing lawsuits. Others have since followed.
A galvanizing moment had come the previous summer. In an interview with Shincho 45, a conservative magazine, a lawmaker, Mio Sugita, dismissed gay men and lesbians as “unproductive” members of society who would not bear children. Ms. Sugita speculated that recognizing same-sex marriage could cause Japan to collapse as it faces a growing population crisis.
去年夏天出现了一个激励人心的时刻。在接受保守派杂志《新町45》(Shincho 45)的采访时，议员杉田水脉(Mio Sugita)斥责男女同性恋者是不肯生育后代的“无生产力”社会成员。杉田推测若承认同性婚姻，可能导致正面临日益严重的人口危机的日本社会崩溃。
The remarks were widely publicized, raising awareness of discrimination against gay people, said Alexander Dmitrenko, a Canadian lawyer and resident of Tokyo who has been a prominent advocate of same-sex marriage.
“It was like Japan’s Stonewall,” he said, referring to the 1969 police raid and following protests that set off the gay rights movement in the United States.
When Taiwan approved Asia’s first same-sex marriage law this May, he said, it was a further prod for many Japanese, who have long prided themselves on being the leading democracy in the region.
Noting the country’s L.G.B.T. “boom,” Kazuya Kawaguchi, a sociology professor at Hiroshima Shudo University, pointed to two television dramas featuring the lives of gay men — “Ossan’s Love” and “What Did You Eat Yesterday?” — that became surprise hits this summer. Four episodes of “Queer Eye” were also set in Japan.
广岛修道大学(Hiroshima Shudo University)的社会学教授河口和也(Kazuya Kawaguchi)注意到了日本的LGBT“兴起”，他提到了两部讲述男同性恋生活的电视剧——《大叔的爱》(Ossan’s Love)和《昨日的美食》(What Did You Eat Yesterday?)——在今年夏天意外爆红。真人秀《粉雄救兵》(Queer Eye)也有四集将背景设在日本。
The television dramas “improved people’s impressions of gay couples,” Mr. Kawaguchi said, adding that “the way they were shot, the language, were easy to understand.”
At the same time, attitudes have been changing among Japanese companies as they have embraced gay consumers and steadily increased their support for gay employees.
Still, many of them have stopped short of becoming involved in the politics of same-sex marriage.
In September 2018, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan issued a position paper arguing that legalizing same-sex marriage would make the country more attractive for talent from abroad. Sixty-seven organizations have signed on to the statement, but so far only a handful have been Japanese firms, including Panasonic and the building materials manufacturer Lixil.
2018年9月，日本美国商会(American Chamber of Commerce in Japan)发布了一份意见书，称同性婚姻合法化将使日本更具海外人才吸引力。67家机构已经签署了这份声明，但到目前为止，只有少数是日本企业，比如松下(Panasonic)和建筑材料制造商骊住(Lixil)。
While domestic media coverage of changing norms abroad has “contributed to a huge amount of discussion here, very few people in the Japanese corporate workplace or in family situations feel comfortable coming out,” said Laurence Bates, 63, who became one of the few openly gay directors of a major Japanese company last year when he was appointed to Panasonic’s board.
The mixed feelings are evident in statistics from the 26 localities that recognize same-sex partnerships. As of October, only 617 couples had registered their partnerships, according to Nijiiro Diversity, a nonprofit that fights discrimination against gay people in the workplace. Advocates note, however, that the process involves considerable red tape and delivers few concrete benefits.
On the national level, the governing Liberal Democratic Party has refused to deliberate a bill proposed by opposition parties that would change Japan’s civil code to recognize same-sex marriages.
The party insists that legalizing the unions would require changing the country’s Constitution: Article 24 of the document says that “marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes,” language that conservative lawmakers have interpreted as requiring the participation of one man and one woman.
That argument, however, has already begun to show weaknesses. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has rejected the position, and in September, a local court became the first in Japan to recognize two people of the same sex as being in a common-law marriage. In the ruling, in which a woman whose female partner had an affair was awarded damages, the judge said that Article 24’s wording did not prohibit unions between same-sex partners.
然而这种论点已经开始显示出弱点。日本律师联合会(Japan Federation of Bar Associations)已经否定了这一立场，今年9月，一个地方法庭承认两名同性者适用普通婚姻法，这在日本尚属首次。在判决中，一名女性因其女性伴侣出轨获得了伤害赔偿。法官表示，宪法第24条的措辞并未禁止同性伴侣的结合。
The lawyers fighting on behalf of Mr. Sato, Ms. Ono and the other couples hope that their lawsuits will make it even harder for the government to continue making its claim.
It could be several years, though, before the courts issue a judgment, said Makiko Terahara, the lead lawyer on the case and a director of Marriage for All Japan, a nonprofit organization.
不过，该案的首席律师、非营利组织“日本全民婚姻”(Marriage for All Japan)负责人寺原真希子(Makiko Terahara)表示，法院可能要花几年时间才能做出判决。
“It’s an important tool, but of course it’s better if the Diet were to make same-sex marriage a reality by changing civil law first,” she said, referring to the national Parliament.
For the couples, a change in the law cannot come soon enough.
“The No. 1 reason I thought I had to participate in this lawsuit was that I wanted to show my children that it’s O.K. that we’re a family,” Ms. Ono said.
“When we’re at home, we’re very naturally a family, but when we go out, there are times when we are treated as though we aren’t,” she added.
Mr. Sato, who works at a nonprofit promoting H.I.V. education, does not know if he will be around to see the change. He is H.I.V.-positive and has diabetes and high blood pressure. “I hope it happens while I’m still alive,” he said.
He expects that legalization of same-sex marriage will encourage his partner to express his sexuality beyond the gay community and open up to his family and colleagues.
“There would be no greater happiness,” he told the court, “than legally marrying my partner and becoming a couple in the real sense before I die.”
Ben Dooley报道日本商业和经济，对社会议题和商业与政治的交叉议题尤感兴趣。欢迎在Twitter上关注他 @benjamindooley。