Hiroko Masuhara, left, and Koyuki Higashi smile as they receive a certification paper of "partnership" at the Shibuya ward office in Tokyo on November 5, 2015.
First step for same-sex marriage in Japan
01:58 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The first same-sex couple to officially register their relationship in Japan are recognized in Tokyo

Only the capital's Shibuya Ward and one other Tokyo district officially recognize same-sex unions

LGBT people in Japan still face considerable discrimination

CNN  — 

A row of cameras waits outside the Shibuya ward office. Security officers try to contain the gaggle of journalists, but more keep coming as the clock ticks closer to opening time on Thursday morning.

The nondescript city office is familiar to any couple seeking a marriage certificate in Shibuya. But no couple like Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Matsuhara has ever walked through the office doors.

When the two women appear, smiling and holding hands, camera clicks and flashes follow them as they go inside, where cameras are not allowed.

Higashi, a Japanese model and television personality turned LGBT activist, wears a dress and heels.

Her partner of four years and fellow activist, Hiroko Matsuhara wears a colorful scarf and dark suit. Both hold hands and smile as they enter the ward office at 8:22 a.m. and leave exactly 20 minutes later carrying Japan’s first-ever certificate recognizing a same sex union.

Japanese couple Hiroko Masuharda and Koyuki Higashi celebrate in front of Shibuya's Hachiko statue on November 5, 2015.

“I’m so happy,” Higashi says. “When they gave us the certificate, I cried. Our friends cried.”

Applicants must be at least 20 and fill out a notarized document promising to protect each other and live together with trust and love. The certificate has an official stamp. But businesses, hospitals, landlords, and other entities are not legally bound to acknowledge it.

Furthermore, this kind of certificate is only available for residents in two of Tokyo’s 23 wards – and nowhere else in Japan. Mostly symbolic, the certificate is supposed to encourage businesses to grant rights equivalent to marriage.

READ MORE: Tokyo’s Shibuya district takes steps to recognize same-sex partnerships

Lingering discrimination

In Japan, same-sex couples have difficulty finding housing, opening joint bank accounts, and can be barred from seeing their loved one in the hospital after an accident or illness.

Despite recognition and protection from some local governments, Japan still has no national laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Coming out can mean getting fired, evicted, or denied healthcare. And there’s no legal recourse.

Shibuya’s mayor Ken Hasebe, who campaigned for LGBT rights, calls the certificates a “landmark step” for his ward, considered one of the youngest and hippest in Tokyo. But he admits, it’s just one small step for a community in Japan who often describe feeling “invisible.”

Higashi, who has openly addressed her own childhood sexual abuse, now serves one of Japan’s most prominent LGBT activists. She and Matsuhara were the only couple to publicly receive a certificate Thursday. Others were expected to receive their documents privately.

The ward office is a short walk from Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing, where for now a large rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT movement, greets commuters leaving the train station.

Even the iconic statue of Hachiko, Japan’s famed loyal dog, is decked out in a rainbow sash. Yet the rainbow colors, and accompanying message of LGBT inclusion, are unfamiliar to many Japanese passing through the world famous intersection.

READ MORE: Gay subway proposal an Internet hit in China

Vocal opposition

“I just don’t understand it,” says 34-year-old Tokyo resident Shizuka Watanabe. “I prefer a normal relationship.”

“They can’t produce children. So in principle, I oppose it,” says 83-year-old Tetsuyuki Akiyoshi. “But in today’s world, I think it’s okay to accept those kind of people.”

On Higashi and Matsuhara’s blog, anonymous comments have been far more severe.

“If you are asking for diversity, you must support the diversity to hate abnormal perverts like you,” wrote one user described only as a Public Servant. “I don’t care if you stay out of my sight.”

Activists point out Japan does not have widespread religious opposition to LGBT issues, but simply a lack of knowledge. Being gay is rarely discussed openly in modern Japan. Many LGBT people continue to live secret lives.

READ MORE: The problem with being gay in South Korea

Long road to acceptance

Japanese schools are slowly beginning to discuss LGBT issues. In April, Japan’s education ministry advised schools to pay greater attention to the needs of “sexual minority” students – a stance further backed last month by Japan’s new education minister Hiroshi Hase.

A 2014 survey by Inochi Risupekuto Howaito Ribon, a Tokyo-based group aimed at preventing LGBT suicide, found 68% of LGBT youth in elementary, junior high and high school have experienced school bullying and 32% have contemplated suicide.

This week, Japanese network Fuji TV will debut the nation’s first ever television drama featuring a lesbian love story.

Thursday’s historic moment at the Shibuya ward office is making headlines across Japan. The island nation of 127 million people has a futuristic image but societal views on gender, minorities, and LGBT rights that may seem outdated when compared to the United States and other western countries.

“We are very privileged to come out publicly,” Matsuhara says. “But lots of people can’t. And they suffer. I hope this will change things.”

READ MORE: Chinese student sues over textbooks that ‘demonize’ gays