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A Japanese high court ruled Thursday that denying same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and called for urgent government action to address the lack of any law allowing for such unions. Plaintiffs and the LGBTQ+ community in Japan cheered it as a landmark decision that gives them hope for change toward equality.

The court does not have the power to overturn the current marriage law, which has been interpreted to restrict marriage as between a man and a woman. Government offices may continue to deny marriage status to same-sex couples unless the existing law is revised to include LGBTQ+ couples or a new law is enacted that allows for other types of unions.

The Sapporo High Court ruling said that not allowing same-sex couples to marry and enjoy the same benefits as straight couples violates their fundamental right to equality and freedom of marriage. The case was brought by three same-sex couples who appealed three years ago after a lower court recognized the unconstitutionality of excluding same-sex couples from marriage equality but dismissed compensation claims for their suffering.

A lower court issued a similar ruling earlier Thursday, becoming the sixth district court to do so. But the Tokyo District Court ruling was only a partial victory for Japan’s LGBTQ+ community calling for equal marriage rights, as it doesn’t change or overturn the current civil union law that the government says defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Five previous court decisions in various cities said Japan’s policy of denying same-sex marriage is either unconstitutional or nearly so. However, unlike the Sapporo ruling Friday, none of the district-level courts clearly deemed the Japanese government’s existing policy to reject same-sex couples unconstitutional.

Sapporo High Court Judge Kiyofumi Saito said the constitutional freedom of marriage is about partnership between two human beings, and the right to marry should equally protect couples of different and same sexes. With their exclusion, same-sex couples have experienced significant disadvantages, suffering or loss of identity, the judge said.

“Disallowing marriage to same-sex couples is a discrimination that lacks rationality,” the ruling said. But allowing same-sex marriage creates no disadvantage or harm to anyone, it said.

A plaintiff, Eri Nakaya, said the traditional definition of marriage repeatedly made her feel that same-sex couples are treated as if they do not exist.

“The ruling clearly stated that same-sex couples have the same right as others and deserve to live in this country, and reminded me it’s okay just to be me,” she said.

Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven nations that still excludes same-sex couples from the right to legally marry and receive spousal benefits.

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